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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Tatty Hennessy directs this debut for Oak Productions at Jermyn Street. Anna Reid’s minimal soft pink set helps with a device to help us identify characters. A wall of framed names which alter – lit by Jai Morjaria. Yvonne Gilbert’s sound supplies string quartet music by among others Bartok (the scherzo of his Quartet No. 2) and modern composers like Graham Fitkin. Till April 13th.


39 characters have this in common. Along with a thousand others they all owe their being to Mary Barton’s fertility clinic between the 1930s and 1967. And Barton’s Brood share the same father, her husband Bertold Wiesner. Only persistent DNA trackers can prove any of this since Barton destroyed all records. So no half-sibling, or in one case full twins, actually know each other. At least not as siblings. Some of course have already met.


Jermyn Street Theatre’s new regime under Tom Littler is proving a powerhouse. And Maud Dromgoole is moving towards top gear. Her dystopic Blue Moon from 2014 was very promising, Acorn in 2016 was too, though structurally less assured, and there’s been a dizzying outflow of new plays including 3 Billion Seconds. Mary’s Babies is a wondrously adroit, painfully funny two-hander where Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens act those 39 characters – mainly about eight recurring ones plus a disastrous baby-wetting party.


Anna Reid’s minimal soft pink set helps: with one backless settee-cum-bed with props stashed or brought out, there’s another device to help us identify characters. A wall of framed names which alter – lit by Jai Morjaria – remind us who’s speaking. Sneaking an occasional look at the text doesn’t harm either.


Yvonne Gilbert’s sound is the most striking element: she supplies string quartet music by among others Bartok (the scherzo of his Quartet No. 2) and modern composers like Graham Fitkin. It’s bewitchingly beautiful, one of the most individual I’ve heard. Its delicacy shimmers through the themes of this play.


Directed by Tatty Hennessy for Oak Productions with crisp élan bringing out humour as well as pathos, we’re hurled into awkward Kieran (Stephens) delivering a monologue in 2007 about the loss felt on discovering his mother isn’t his mother, as she tells him months before her death. That’s not all. By nagging persistence he discovers he has a twin. Kieran’s endearingly annoying: Stephens portrays him as a nasally-sounding loser, one who upends those on a winning streak by simply being himself. And it’s his unravelling that threads everyone together.


Meanwhile Fielding’s reflective Charlotte throws up whilst bestriding her new lover six-fingered Bret on their first hump. Despite this they get marriage on and straight away Charlotte, a nurse, is pregnant. There’s Ethel and Gracie an upper-crust couple where Gracie’s displaced as Ethel discovers her Barton-ness. Charlotte meets Gracie with n idea of their sanguinity, and discloses intimate info she apologizes for, as if something’s tripped her.


Kieran discovers Rita who submits to a swab – Kieran’s got DNA kit now – and we sashay through recurrent characters several of whom like Gracie fetch up visiting hospital and bump into Caroline asking advice, or like Kieran, confident he’s giving some. Less-profiled characters like Rebecca and Suzie bond immediately and embarks on stay-overs – and swap gag-reflexes. Caroline and Kieran (whom the actors become in a beat) remain awkward and it’s the key driver to the plot, alongside some startling revelations Bret can’t take in, and a devastating split.


Other friends find it difficult to take in this overwhelming desire of many to bond with siblings you didn’t know you had. Marcus upbraids Keith for hunkering over his phone for the next drip of news. Ethel encounters a Ventriloquist, one of the most delicately absurdist scenes though one with Tom and Henry and a chicken they think will lay chocolate eggs runs it close.


There’s a heartfelt monologue by Rita – to Kieran – of her own child, born of a joyous sexual encounter at sixteen, a child she’ll probably never meet. And a long-suffering Registrar who encounters very different requests from protagonists mentioned. And…. that party. The denouement and then epilogue takes us deeper, and certainly more edgily into revelations from people whom you think have revealed all; they haven’t.


The two actors blink into each new role with a faceted glint of difference you can see. Stephens does contained fury and snarling hurt very well, her characters often steely then forlorn, or wounded like Kieran or Bret. But she inhabits warm ones like Gracie with suppressed rage at her father. Fielding exudes a reflectiveness as civilised Charlotte but also gentle witty Ethel, Rita with her regrets, the Registrar, occasionally aggressive types like Marcus.


Dromgoole in 90 minutes manages a bewilderment of characters very well, highlighting about eight whose journey we see threaded as they collide with others as well as partners. Who can turn out – this of course is where you should see this play.


Whilst such a structure of 31 scenes doesn’t make for a profound exploration of character – Caroline and Kieran come nearest – you could hardly ask for a more consummate presentation of an array of half-and-full-siblings discovering each other. As fictionalised characters based on truth – real narratives are unfolding privately even now – it’s a deft threading together; without tugging at any one strand too much. That though would make a profound, and profoundly different play that might yet get written. Meanwhile Dromgoole’s proved more than adroit, skilful, and deliciously risk-taking with a light touch. A must-see.