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FringeReview UK 2019


Chichester Festival Theatre

Genre: Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre


Low Down

Director Kate Hewitt has gone for strong visuals in designer Georgia Lowe’s iridescent starkness, Lee Curran’s lighting is spare, so its reveals bespeak a radiant epiphany. Nina Dunn’s video design is mainly of Stirling’s face. Giles Thomas’ sound comes in with these voice-overs.


Plenty. It’s a word resonant with postwar, from the stance of a woman in a field vivid with liberation.


David Hare’s 1978 play isn’t just the one he goes back to more and more, as he states. For many it’s his early masterpiece, of the 32 he’s written. His central character Susan Traherne – in Rachel Stirling’s unflinching, scorched-earth performance – is the SOE courier whose teenage experience at 17-19 never lands safely on the other side of the war.


As a study in peacetime betrayal, of self-loathing and of the thwarted agency of women Plenty’s resonance grows. Not least because there’s even Brexit echoes when Traherne’s dull diplomat husband (Rory Keenan’s Raymond Brock) turns down working for the EEC. There’s a gasp at that point. A play that makes it past 40 tends to such moments at each revival.


Director Kate Hewitt has gone for strong visuals in designer Georgia Lowe’s iridescent starkness, where the Festival stage gleams the reflection of a parachute yellowed with sudden moonlight – Lee Curran’s lighting is spare, so its reveals bespeak a radiant epiphany. There’s swift-changing props from the first scenes’ boxes – we begin almost at the end in 1962 – through plush consulates and offices to a diplomat’s home with vases and orange sofas c. 1956. Much of the rear stage is occluded till the last scene – by a screen of hanging strips where props are bussed in and out, but which also supply Nina Dunn’s video design mainly of Stirling’s face. It’s a study in disintegration, someone who at one point in 1961 is interviewed on the BBC about her wartime experiences, a kind of Face to Face off her face. There is weed at the start and finish. Giles Thomas’ sound comes in with these voice-overs, but mainly it’s discreet: silences are telling.


Hare’s technique – starting near the end, then a chronological jump through from 1943 along to 1962, then a coda, was quite novel, though now standard. There’s a strange elusive heart to this which Hare never quite nails, for all the key moments we see. Some jump-cuts cohere, Plenty depends a bit on our own emotional investment.


It allows the Traherne actor to fill in the blanks, the dangers, two spells in psychiatric care, a kind of meta-language of betrayal kept out so essential confrontations foreground: with eventual husband Brock, with his boss the quixotic and ultimately honourable Sir Leonard Darwin (Anthony Calf’s squirmingly conscience-struck Ambassador, naïve yet somehow streaked with nobility); and a final confrontation with Sir Andrew Charleson (urbanely menacing Nick Sampson) about Brock’s stalled career.


At its heart though is a disastrous diner party in October 1956, where Brock and Darwin both implode, as Stirling’s Traherne needles them into the ‘don’t talk about Suez’ moment which engulfs their guests. It seems only in these public spaces that Traherne (occasionally as here Mrs Brock) can express the incandescence of her feeling, tears streaming down as she equates the parachutes over Suez, with her own parachuting into enemy territory, and very different receptions. It’s a marvellous theatrical dovetail.


Hare’s core dramatic engine, apart from a female friendship, is to set Traherne against the mandarin class and rage against their implacable complaisance about themselves. She might lose, but she comes away with flesh: Hypocrisy, menace, blinkered smugness and ultimately horrific sexism – a chilling moment in her last confrontation where Stirling is suddenly marche doff by a horde of minders.


Most of the best scenes otherwise involve Traherne’s friend Alice, Yolanda Kettle’s fizzing ‘only Bohemian’ trying bad Kif at the opening so she can write of it, looking at a naked bloodied Brock; trying out men and moving from novelist to schoolteacher and advertising copywriter and finally offered the Brock house as refuge for unmarried mothers. Her trajectory somehow struggles upwards. She’s candid about eavesdropping on Traherne’s rows with Brock (before they marry or after) and her vivid modernity’s the most refreshing foil to otherwise period characters. She brings a couple herself, Gemma Dobson’s naked model Louise, and daft RP-spitting schoolgirl Dorcas (Macy Nyman) who needs an abortion. Kettle’s life-affirming sassiness is something we miss whenever she departs: Hare’s dialogue between her and Traherne is much the funniest and most memorable, bar a few emotional speeches.


We’ve seen one right back in 1943 as Traherne opens up to Codename Lazar, Rupert Young’s dashing one-night flit who haunts her after she admits vulnerability. He hasn’t forgotten her either. That’s in contrast to the luckless Micah Balfour’s Mick, recruited to make a baby, and chosen deliberately as having nothing socially in common. He’s discarded with pistol shots after 18 months of failure. Again Stirling strips any obvious PTSD as an excuse for Traherne’s actions, yet we know it’s there. This has been rationalised early on: impatience of not suffering fools, the speech Traherne first gives to Brock when fetching up at the British Embassy in Brussels, after a fellow ex-agent dies of a heart attack.


From 1978 this has been – bafflingly – a 13-strong ensemble with tiny separate roles, one right in the last scene and two just prior. Why there’s still no doubling in these post-plenty days is a mystery. Thus Raphael Depsrez (one Frenchman) Alan Booty (another), Ozzie Yue and Louisa Mai Newberry (1956 guests) ad Philippe Edwards (Sir Andrew’s dogsbody) endure ungratefully minimal roles.


Plenty is as diaphanous yet iridescent as one of those parachutes caught in moonlight then trampled on. It’s still a teasing, wrenching study, vital, elusive, unsettling enough to avoid instant classic status, but outliving many that court it. A superb revival.