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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Directed by Tricia Thorns for Two’s Company. Designed by Alex Marker, with period costumes by Emily Stuart and lit by Neill Brinkworth, and Dominic Bilkey’s soundworld drawing in schmaltzy covers of the Beatles. Till March 9th.


For some of us it’ll never turn into a mantra to repeat how necessary Southwark Playhouse is: with such regular companies as Troupe and here, Two’s Company mounting shows of sovereign quality that set benchmarks. In revivals (a Two’s Company specialism) or new work, Southwark’s one of the great theatrical powerhouses.


So it’s appropriate that James Saunders – championed by Sam Walters and the magnificent Orange Tree – should be revived here in the Little Studio. Walters premiered Bodies in 1977, revived it the following year and it transferred to the West End in 1979. A hit centring around a seventies San Francisco therapy – Erhard Seminars Training (EST) – might well proclaim a shelf-life; so it fell out of fashion. But though acronyms shift, Saunders’ play remains uncannily relevant, addressing the pains of artistic creation, or whether it or its dark twin suffering is necessary at all. More than that, crisply directed by Tricia Thorns for Two’s Company, it’s a small masterpiece.


Saunders (1925-12004) wrote for the Orange Tree till his last work in 1995, and if Bodies heralds a revival, it’ll be more than welcome. It might start with the 1962 award-winning Next Time I’ll Sing To You, heralding the end of his early absurdism and emergence to worry the mainstream. He refused to embrace it, scalloping its edges with querulous brilliance. And he wasn’t quite avant-garde. No-one’s claimed him. So on the basis of this play, it’s why he’s necessary too.


Designed by Alex Marker, we’re up close to a well-to-do drawing room with certain Edwardian 1970s side-table repros that a head teacher’s home might enjoy, and a modern lamp. The cream phone proves cardinal, and a window permanently twilit. There’s newly fashionable Edwardian wallpaper courtesy of actor Annabel Mullion who plays Anne.


Most striking are period costumes by Emily Stuart: Helen’s white and blue maxi, Mervyn’s rusty cardigan, David’s series of polo-necks under silver-grey suits, Anne’s classic slacks. It’s lit by Neill Brinkworth, and Dominic Bilkey’s soundworld draws in schmaltzy covers of the Beatles, dug up from half-forgotten sound-tracks: horribly accurate.


Two couples narrate singly or act out why they’re meeting again after nine years. Each has slept with the other’s partner, and the first act leads up to that fateful reunion with sashays in and out of monologue, and of time: there’s relating how it was, and interactions as to how it is. It’s the second act that explodes with all four actors bouncing off each others’ pain.


Mullion’s Anne confides how at forty she saw her life slipping, and knowing her husband English teacher husband Mervyn (Tim Welton) has enjoyed many affairs, picks on his oldest, best friend, executive and Sunday painter David (Peter Prentice). His wife Alix Dunmore’s Helen, immediately senses what’s happened and chooses to entice Mervyn. We’re not shown the outfall after everything’s admitted, but each couple split and re-splice with their new affair, try living together, then return to their original partners.


David and Helen emigrate to the States, have nervous breakdowns, discover EST, return. So why has Mervyn invited them round for dinner with much trouble, only then informing Anne? And why’s a book on EST nesting near his armchair?


It turns out Mervyn’s been lent the book by a maddeningly bright pupil, Simpson, who’s havering between embracing painful lyricism (all that Keats and Dowson, the latter quoted extensively in the programme) as a modern poet; or admitting it’s all neurosis, as EST says. His solution is drastic, and in between having read the book twice, Mervyn’s waiting for a phone call.


EST offers to cleanse us of illusions, of attachments, of neuroses. The neurosis, as Mervyn lets everyone know, is as diagnosed by ‘Freud, Jung, Reich and Laing ascending in the lotus position!’ How seventies all that is! Mevyn adds shrewdly that psychoanalysis identifies but doesn’t want to cure neuroses.


Saunders might have quoted Rilke, who, offered psychotherapy by Freud, refused, stating he preferred to keep his neurosis and thus his poetry. ‘One should cultivate the child’s wise incapacity to understand.’ Instead, Saunders goes for the Grecian Urn, Mervyn handling Keats at this point like a funky gibbon with a piece of Chinoiserie. Art is ‘the most refined expression of neurosis’ and Mervyn’s not dropping that for anyone.


Bullying and rhotomontading, a learned Jimmy Porter with a midlife, Mervyn’s infuriated with more and more Scotch, matched with supreme irritation by Anne whose cut-glass cutting-down intensifies. Welton revels in this, as he must, but it’s a tour-de-farce of blindsiding rhetoric shadowed by absolute loss, and it’s his loss, as Helen points out, that he wants to keep; just like all those Romantic poets.


Whilst Anne’s partially untouched by all this, as Mullion plays her with quiet simmering rage, Helen and David offer more vulnerable, but not untruthful versions of themselves. David’s stopped painting, since he no longer needs it. The trauma that drove him near suicide, which has its roots in Anne, isn’t quite revealed but it’s left him a forever-beached executive, never trusted again. Yet his discovery detaches him as much as the man who discovered all his life his dream of success, chargrilled steak, revolts him. David, the clear-headed uptight man in Prentice’s controlled carapace of a performance, is happy to cede to every one of Mervyn’s ‘chess-playing’ ambushes. He might lose an eye for Helen – Mervyn brandishes a confiscated knife – but would he really die for her? ‘You win Mervyn.’ But does he?


Dunmore’s Helen, quiet for much of the time, can turn everything with a look down or around, much as Mullion does with a stare. Dunmore suggests a glowing warmth through marble, a delicacy and somewhere an absolute zero she keeps in check. She’s chosen to live without illusion, as David has. They’re not lobotomised, she reminds Mervyn, they remember their lovers, but whilst refusing to obliterate the past, it no longer means anything to them.


Her truth though, obliterates Mervyn’s and he’s having none of it. Given the most profound reflections – though Helen’s short monologue has a crystalline memorability – he’s buffoonish too. Citing Chekhov, there’s something of Vanya in him.


Saunders inherited a form and put it through an intellectual strainer that’s thrilling and breathless to watch. Recalling something of John Osborne’s 1968 claustrophobic Amsterdam, the brittle humour of Christopher Hampton’s 1970 The Philanthropist, and in some ways a kind of Abigail’s Party for the chattering classes that premiered the same month, Bodies anticipates other plays: Harold Pinter’s Betrayal of 1978, Peter Nichols’ Passion Play (1981), Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing from 1982.


Thematically though it’s close to Andrew Carr’s 1980 TV play Instant Enlightenment (Including VAT) which dramatizes an EST weekend which tackled the brainwashing inherent in the programme. Good as that was, and seen by many thousands, Saunders shows he can write as well or better than any of these dramatists on his chosen ground.


Like Carr in Instant Enlightenment, Saunders refuses to take sides. Mervyn’s self-indulgence, someone who like Helmholtz in Brave New World demands their pain, isn’t a role-model for artistic enlightenment either. The emotionally coiffeured adjustments Helen and David make suggest the very losses their loss-erasure denies. And it’s Helen who movingly narrates how she’s lost all belief. Bodies as David says are all there is, but then why such little delight in them? Their alternatives though included suicide.


David’s able to challenge and occasionally land Mervyn, by his very surrender. But more of Helen’s world, and much more of the vitriol-lipped Anne who says least, might have turned this into a classic. It’s still masterly, and in this rare revival, a must-see.