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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Directed by Stephanie Mohr, Justin Nardella’s set and costumes make a brave attempt to honour the Coronet’s stark beauty. Lit by Joshua Carr, sound design’s by Mike Winship.


Ödön von Horváth (1901-38) might be better-known if he hadn’t been killed by a branch falling from a chestnut-tree he sheltered under in the Champs Elysées during a thunderstorm. He said he feared streets more than the Nazis he’d just fled from.

Christopher Hampton’s long championed Horváth’s work. Referencing the latter’s Tales From the Vienna Woods, he wrote Tales From Hollywood, imagining a future life for a writer who more than anyone else carried over satirist Karl Kraus’ legacy with a keenly humanist edge, with an instinct for genuine, not just ersatz folk idioms about to be traduced.

Horváth, a dramatist, turned to the novel when it seemed unlikely he’d get plays produced. Ironically, he was walking home happily after meeting to discuss his second novel, Youth Without God, being made into a film, when that branch struck. Hampton’s returned Horváth to his world. It’s at its darkest here.

Those folk idioms seem crushed in a Nazi youth camp, where as a kind of punishment the central Teacher (Alex Waldmann) has to accompany his brutish 15-year-old charges having been hauled up: for rebuking one pupil for repeating racist filth he’d heard over the radio.

Directed by Stephanie Mohr, who’s making her UK debut having worked abroad, it’s a production making a virtue of the excoriated space of the Coronet’s theatre. This is often the epicentre of alchemy in London, and Justin Nardella’s set and costumes make a brave attempt to honour its stark beauty. There’s a horseshoe of blackboards, some reversible with black-and-white blow-ups we see too indistinctly. They’re scrawled on emblematically, almost erotically when mountains seem indicated, as the work progresses. Lit by Joshua Carr, sound design’s by Mike Winship with eerie and naturalistic sashaying very quietly throughout.

Waldmann’s is the key performance and his character the moral epicentre of the work answering his own rhetorical flourishes in a prescient translation. ‘The world seems to be spiralling towards disaster again, doesn’t it?…. What good can one man do?’ Waldmann nails the Teacher’s liberal but rule-breaking curiosity. He doesn’t flinch from portraying a forensic implacability – making him more of a policeman than the authorities. Indeed his rule-breaking seems to lead indirectly to the murder of the boy he likes least.

Another boy Robert Ziegler (Raymond Anum) confesses to the killing, but to shield a girl he’s met in the woods: Eva, played by Anna Munden, an outcast who scratches a living by thieving and takes a sexual shine to the intelligent, introspective Ziegler. But he might be wrong about her in two ways. Again it’s Waldmann’s Teacher who scents out the truth, which leads to an explosive climax and aftermath.

There’s a rich seam of characters along the way. Many are played by David Beames, embodying all avuncular authority – church, state, education – who capitulate to fascism. The headmaster anxious not to offend fascist fathers of fascist sons – the latter one of the roles taken with menace by Christopher Bowen. Beames is authoritative as the demoted Priest (where his performance is exquisite), the Prosecutor and the tiny role of Inspector.

There’s an exception. Beames doubles curiously as a low-life angel, a curious left-thinking criminal Julius Caesar who’s a long-standing friend, and who brings Clara Onymere’s prostitute – her other roles include two of the boys’ mothers. Latterly these two plot against the Teacher’s enemies, if not altogether successfully. It’s a vanishing world, but one where difference is still just able to lurk in the corners of bars or woods.

Bowen’s loweringly good as a fascist father, exasperated defence council, and small authority roles.

The young actors impress as schoolboys; Malcolm Cumming’s stupid but vicious Neumann with oafish views; Nicholas Nunn’s sneeringly clever, psychopathic Dieter Trauner, Brandon Ashford’s bullied Arno Feuerbach, Owen Alun’s baffled Heinrich Reiss and Finnian Garbutt’s secretly liberal Franz Bauer who springs a surprise.

Nobody, the Teacher and Ziegler find, is quite who or what you expect. Doubting survival in a collapsing world where allies capitulate and only criminals – and not all of them – possess a moral compass, the Teacher has to make a decision.

There’s textual indications in the denouement that make clear what the production doesn’t. This might be to avoid an over-naturalistic scuffle but it doesn’t quite come across. Otherwise this is a lucid, sympathetic production that breathes in some of the sub-atomic stardust of this theatre. It’s mostly plain though, and sees storytelling in a blackboard’s wooden O to affright the return of fascists. Waldmann’s gaze holds us steadily and sees it whole, inhabiting a fine adaptation that could absorb other readings. This though presents a clean start: without fuss or ersatz flavour we’re launched into a necessary world.