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FringeReview UK 2019


National Theatre, London

Genre: Drama, Historical, Mainstream Theatre, Political, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttelton


Low Down

Directed by Simon Godwin, with set and costume design by Miriam Bechtler, lit by Jackie Shemesh. Music’s by Michael Bruce. Sound design’s by Christopher Shutt. Shelley Maxwell’s movement director with company voice work by Jeanette Nelson and Associate Director Emily Burns.

Screen director Robin Lough relishes the chance to frame the production in carefully gradated close-ups and occasional sweeps where the Lytttelton’s stage allows a zoom on intimacy and conflict. Lighting Director Bernie Davis doesn’t lose the tang of theatre but lets nothing intrude around the stage. Conrad Fletcher’s sound is a discreet envelope, embracing the explosion of foxes. As usual, technical producer is Christopher C Bretnall.


Around half-way we think we see the reveal at the end coming, and we’d be right. But not how that’s impacted on Alex Jennings’ Robin and Lindsay Duncan’s Diana, in Simon Woods’ Hansard. It’s May 1988. Robin Hesketh MP fresh from Any Questions in Leeds is anxious before a long breakfast table. All his super-intelligent liberal wife Diana seems destined for is the Aga and the ecstasy. And reading novels.

The gradations of character that get us there hint at sudden minefields, which Diana prepares and Robin flinches at, skirts round, denies. Excoriatingly precise sallies and retorts seem pristine try-outs for an after-dinner audience. But the Scotts haven’t yet arrived and would be profoundly uncomfortable.

Diana wants to shake Tories up with education. ‘Slip Virginia Woolf into Margaret’s red box. That’ll shake her up.’ And Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is so obvious a homage that again you feel a self-conscious ruffle. Who are they playing out to? It’s a Coward world made for two. Every twitch tells on Jennings, every piercing look Duncan gives seems close to something else.

Directed by Simon Godwin, Miriam Bechtler’s cream magnolia kitchen is excoriated, impersonal stretched along the rectilinear Lyttelton space. There’s Cotswolds green and yellow hinted in May sun outside the window. Bechtler’s costume design models Robin’s suit versus Diana’s dishevelled egg-blue dressing-gown. It’s all lit by Jackie Shemesh. The discreet music’s by Michael Bruce; sound by Christopher Shutt includes a fox’s raucous bark. Shelley Maxwell’s movement director – vital in this continual minimalist circling round the kitchen table.

Diana’s conclusion after the harrowing of the north, about voters: ‘And like a battered wife they keep coming back to you’ is a pre-emptive cruel jibe at now. As are barbs like ‘the insatiable desire of the people of this country to be fucked by an Old Etonian’ which had less relevance then. In 1988 meritocracy hadn’t dried up: grammar schools not Eton bred prime ministers. A period piece this isn’t. There’s nowhere to stand judgement on voters of 1988 and how less enlightened they were.

Woods cleverly demonstrates Tories of over 30 years ago unnervingly prophesy current opinions. Section 28 – infamously forbidding local authorities to ‘promote homosexuality’ – Robin declares ‘is a safeguarding measure’. Against who? He adds ‘And do you think that the religious parents in my constituency want their children being taught about gay sex in schools?’

Of course it’s a 2019 topic. Note ‘my’ constituency. As Diane notes ‘It’s easy to mistake an expensive education for an actual understanding of the world.’

Woods both justifies clever dialogue and explains why the couple got together at all. For instance Robin’s sustained literate assault on the Guardian replete with ‘typographical errors’ swivels to theatregoers: ‘appalling people…. who in real life contribute the absolute least get all the sympathy.’ Woods the actor can’t resist delighting his audience by attacking them. It means Jennings’ character gets far more good lines than is good for a Tory MP.

Nevertheless a man who can pun on his wife’s pickled liver donated to science ‘ginorously’ and like those ‘appalling people’ trade Shakespeare is no shire clone. Robin’s unconscious entitlement and born-to-rule arrogance though, shares with Diana a profound wound.

You can see how Diana – whose affair with Robin shoved aside a previous wife – was enraptured: ‘and the rest, as they say, is tragedy.’ Duncan’s flinching recall of Diana’s love for Robin causes Jennings to recoil first with the memory of when she last essayed sex, as gin-fuelled. It’s a harrowing speed-read of how love galls itself in incredulity.

The mainsprings of this litter across in a film projector Diana wants to use as a prop to broach something very painful. You’re sure it’ll go off sometime. Not to mention Robin galavanting off with a presumed mistress, mirroring his father’s behaviour, his mother’s frigid hostility. Diana’s left with entertaining Tories: ‘All those headscarves I wore. The twin sets. The casual racism.’

Woods’ play though quite apart from its memorable dialogue might appear to meander and the energy dips momentarily 65 minutes into its 90 straight-through. There’s little happening outside the bouquets of barbed wire being traded. Even the offstage trashed lawn, kept pristine for some curious reason of Robin’s. But it’s otherwise a masterful series of hints, allowing an audience to will more of it as it inexorably looms. The only problem Woods doesn’t solve is in the unravelment of who was really doing what when it’s assumed they’re enjoying themselves. It’s a little perfunctory and can easily be remedied. Though after it the utter devastation between Jennings and Duncan runs clear.

No praise exceeds the attention Duncan brings to her fleer and flinch, her hollowed-out brightness. Nor the frayed carapace Jennings pulls around Robin as he reels and crumbles with admission, the couple’s mutual shock in what they’ve admitted to each other. The tears of both are real. Minor structural flaws aside, this is a masterfully conceived vehicle to stalk politics now, with a scintillating, mostly inexorable tread towards the worst truth of all.