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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Directed by Ivo van Hove, designed and lit by Jan Versweyveld, Costumes by An D’Huys with P J Harvey’s composition and Tom Gibbons sound.


Nicholas Wickham’s screen direction was quietly virtuosic and almost certainly gave a far greater narrative sense than bring in the theatre live. Gemma O’Sullivan and Conrad Fletcher matched lighting and sound respectively for fades up and down.


Director Ivo van Hove has form taking a scalpel to misogyny, and sometimes cuts himself – as in his controversially brutal humiliation of Rachel Wilson in the title role of the National’s Hedda Gabler in 2016.


Here anyway a fightback stars in the credits. Mary Orr‘s 1946 story ‘The Wisdom of Eve’ is quietly credited (it wasn’t in the film) as the basis of Joseph Mankiewicz’s wonderful script for his classic 1950 movie All About Eve. Orr had already adapted her story as the 1949 radio drama Mankiewicz noticed then finally the play, Applause.


Gillian Anderson as the just-to-fade megastar Margo Channing and the ingénue who shyly gate-crashes then crashes her, Eve Harrington, played by Lily James, are huge draws. They’re equally mesmerising, both fireboxes with caves of ice. Anderson’s Channing has been given an extra ten years, is now fifty.


The plot’s direct enough in this two hours straight-through. It’s narrated at points by Machiavel critic Addison DeWitt as we swing backstage where we stay, in various guises, dressing room, stage party, or bathroom throughout.


There’s strong visuals, James alone in a shabby buff raincoat against the burgundy plush of theatre. James’ character insinuates her way through dramatist Lloyd’s wife ‘civilian’ Karen Richards (Monica Dolan) to indispensible dresser/secretary, then after being caught trying on Channing’s dress, bowing to imaginary applause, is to be shunted to an office when she manages to become Channing’s understudy. Taking pity on her Richards arranges for Channing to miss a performance, Harrington goes on, is a sensation, aided by DeWitt. Already rebuffed by Channing’s lover director Bill Sampson, Harrington blackmails Karen Richards into getting the already besotted Lloyd to give her the part he’d been writing for Channing. Suddenly Channing resigns interest. So Harrington can grab Lloyd, but DeWitt intervenes, blackmailing in his turn. After a year of stardom another ingénue Phoebe, appears at Harrington’s door.


It’s difficult to date this as either 1950s or now, and van Hove and his designer, Jan Versweyveld who also lights the set have created something wondrous that only camera angles in an NT Live broadcast can paradoxically highlight. Verticals and flats slot in and out as perspectives shift. In addition to the Noel Coward’s core space opening onto another auditorium we’re gifted a kitchen and bathroom where scenes are projected overhead, save one cameraman at a Stork Club dinner table – an advance on the recent practice of sending video-cameras round backstage in grainy confessional monochrome.


Otherwise the wizardry of multi-layering comes across with clinical verve and savage juxtaposition. A vom-splashed toilet as Channing throws up above a dazzling cocktail party. Equally a tenebrous kitchen scene or Stork Club bathroom with haunting hollowed-out light plays out blackmail perfectly as the subjects laugh obliviously outside.


Anderson’s smoky drawl hints a little of Bette Davis’ original, but many already recall her echo the 2014 Young Vic production of Tennessee William’s Streetcar, as Blanche Dubois. There’s a slowing-down space left for desolation and sympathy. This Channing as amplified by Anderson is softer, more tragic, more poignantly self-destructive. At one point she stares at the mirror and with CGI slicks suddenly into a blotched 80. Waspish still in her delivery, Anderson impresses by managing both vulnerability and a slightly glacial approach. You can never feel total sympathy.


James insinuates her more volatile character with a touch more of the fiery narcissism and ambition that makes her till near the end more sympathetic, even when we see her seething blackmail or dance of triumph, almost. It’s only DeWitt who’s done his research and understands her as he does himself, who sees her unleash her furies. It’s both thrilling and unnerving.


Whilst Versweyveld’s mastery of set and lighting dominate, the obligatory gorgeous costumes by An D’Huys impress, and P J Harvey’s music with the equal desolation of Tom Gibbons sound envelop the scene in noirish regret.


Dolan’s outstanding as Karen, protective self-proclaimed ‘civilian’ in a theatrical bearpit; but all the more objective. Hers might be the finest performance of all. Stanley Townsend’s positively Wellesian, superb as critic DeWitt, spitting acid like an artist. All he can do is burn outlines but this heats or crisps a reputation; he relishes power like a sociopath. Sheila Reid’s memorably witty dresser Birdie instinctively dislikes Harrington, and lives in oblique theatrical aphorisms like a warning sibyl: a benign polar opposite to DeWitt.


Julian Ovenden as Anderson’s director partner Sampson pushed beyond his limit is memorable and surprises you with his responses. Rhashan Stone’s Lloyd Richards surprises you by being so ready to swallow all Harrington presents, being wound round Channing’s fingers too, till rescued by Dolan. Jan Drysdale’s anxious producer Max Fabian is a study in puffed-up disappointment as the women occasionally play with him.


Tsion Habte’s Phoebe brightens and deepens the end with her shining evening face. Jessie Mei Li’s Claudia Caswell who mysteriously falls pregnant as Channing’s understudy inverts her attitude to Harrington with incredible neatness and minimal gestures: first scornful, latterly a flick of homage. Philip Voyzey’s Pianist plays stylishly, more put upon than Cleopatra’s musicians.


Anderson and James, Dolan and Townsend though put in stunning performances. Viewed on a screen-live format we’re returned to that medium with virtuosity and point. In turn it suggests van Hove’s preferences for ensembles and frankly directorial intervention finds its subject here. There’s a platinum sheen to this; it’s not warm but the original satire gains here more feeling than what it loses in sheer bite. Absorbing. A must-see.