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FringeReview UK 2020

Low Down

Devised by Chris Bush and director Rebecca Frecknall with the company – Maimuna Memon, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Elliot Levey, Toheeb Jimoh, Luke Thallon and Katie Brayben. Voiceover Annie Firbank. Lighting Jack Knowles, Sound Carolyn Downing, with Music by Maimuna Memon, Music Supervisor Tim Sutton. Assistant Director Helena Morais. Costume Supervisor Clair Wardroper. Interrupted by Tier 3 till after Christmas. Till January 9th. Watch for future showings of the December 15th performance.


The Almeida’s another country. They do shows differently there. Nine Lessons and Carols might suggest it’s as seasonal if more sacramental than the pantos backing into the limelight. It’s not – though there are DNA strains of winter singing at key moments.

It’s also one of the most covid-secure theatres around. ‘What more could you ask of us?’ tweets writer Chris Bush citing praise for the arrangements.

‘This is not a corona play’ notes trumpet though. OK. It’s devised however during Lockdown 2.0 by Bush and director Rebecca Frecknall with the company. And that strain inheres too. It could hardly speak to our (or its) condition otherwise.

Jack Knowles’ lighting is as ever a pointilistic delight, here diffusing just a bit into jets of candelight shooting up the brickish back of the stage. It’s either golden recalling the magnificent production of Summer and Smoke, or a cool wash of lilac and lavender.

The livestream quality renders the Almeida achingly within touching distance, with various camera angles discreetly enriching pace pitch swoop and storyline. It’s as intimate as Row F. We have the best seat and often see our fellow audience members.

There’s a back-to-Shipwreck feel, Anne Washburn’s play staged here nearly two years ago, or even earlier with Washburn’s Mr Burns. Nine Lessons too evokes winter storytelling, with the circular Almeida stage touched with logwood, lights dimmed. There’s a ‘keep the camp fires burning’ about it. And Homeric storytelling. It’s right to invoke this ethos, those productions. It’s not quite what happens.

After a voiceover from Annie Firbank underlining the fact that at 87 it’s too risky to be here, we’re intro’d to a mythos of the gods splitting human happiness with thorns, dispatched by their doubles the lovers. Yes we’ve seen this Platonic myth, but it’s twisted into a wholly new shape. Divisions – thorns – are on the inside. Hold that thorn. And the story passes round.

Maimuna Memon’s ‘To my January self’ leaps into the first solo-led heartwarmer. Memon’s the lodestar of this show and her singing shows how fine the actors’ voices are.

Katie Brayben’s the first true monologue and she’s a commanding presence throughout, yet nuanced in duologues and ultimately lyrical. Brayben’s character declares being alone is not the same as loneliness, sneering all the way to Sartre: ‘Loneliness is for the intellectually weak… Loneliness is for the terror of not being able to dilute your own terrible personality.’ We discover why – and it’s existential. Still…

That’s hard on those of us who can’t get to the Almeida for instance – but the very reach of the live-beamed performance on 15th (hopefully rescreened) is one of those exponential growths during lockdown to be celebrated.

To pull away as it were a moment, it’s worth contemplating what a more regularised online access could mean. For those too vulnerable, disabled, frail or simply far-off, as well as those discovering a sold-out sign, online viewing is an enormous step-up from the NT Live template and pioneered from late March by Hampstead and others including NT and the Almeida.

Memon (mainly as musician), Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Elliot Levey, Toheeb Jimoh, Luke Thallon join Brayben (still a dominant voice) and swirl into different facturings – again a bit like Washburn, but not with the cumulative fracturing of her aesthetic.

So it’s a very metropolitan piece, reflecting the company’s lives. Still the comic notion of drones dropping Christmas shopping all over London ’total capitalist dystopia’ is one of those cheery socialist jokes struggling to its feet to shout ‘Novara Media’. If it dared. And Agyei-Ampadu and Jimoh bicker over attending a Black Lives Matter protest during lockdown. Even during corona, things have shifted.

Levey recounts a recipe for banana bread – piquant as Nigella Lawson accessing Ash ‘literally a communist’ Sarkar’s recipe and extolling it to the plush at heart. It’s there in Levey’s ‘apparently there’s more than one type of sugar…. Remember the banana… very Nigella.’ Alas not even birds let alone reluctant neighbours are biting; he has to hike his potassium levels solo. This is one of two late additions, yet feeding into Levey’s character. As yet, he’s charmingly distrait – Levey underscoring the bleak by being oblique with self-deprecation, a recit of bio-chemicals he knows we’ll laugh at.

Brayben and Thallon break up over camping – he wasn’t meant to be coming. ‘Being sad is the glue that binds us to the world.’ Brayben’s earlier character has threaded through. She wants solitude, literally the desert. ‘I need love less than I need freedom.’ ‘I love you’ she affirms from a near galaxy. ‘I can’t be alone’ from Thallon names the gulf and we’re back with Memon with Brayben on keys.

Should we be surprised an ad agency brainstorms ways to repackage Christmas? There’s ‘a snowball fight on the moon… Buzz Armstrong {laughter} takes his step and bouf a snowball….’ It’s a neat sketch on the obscenity of confection.

Jimoh’s Deliveroo is a litany of target-chasing orders to the rich, crossstitch or to lesbians with handheld sex toys, and a range of non-tipped empty solidarity ‘bro’ noises from the privileged ‘I bet you can dance…join us for sourdough’ and a Tinder fan who claps him every Thursday thinking he’s a paramedic. It’s gently touched in, and in Jimoh’s hands charmingly devastating: corona-rich with references.

There’s a return: stories repeat and reference themselves. The outfall of the BLM march with temporary separations looming, swirls back to a now solitary Thallon becoming an accidental dog-walker excels here, near breaking up as he accelerates his entanglement with himself mistaking it for a dog-lead. ‘She sleeps through the day and howls through the night’. What inheres as the stories repeat cross-fertilise or grow out, is indeed the loneliness – or co-dependence – Brayben despises. ‘I walk my black dog on a short leash never letting her out of my sight… in locked step, joined at the hip, but to day we walked outside.’ That’s a felicitously-drawn fight with depression.

And it’s Brayben’s voice who leads out a number memorably with Knowles washing the upper walls in lavender. Thallon’s and Levey’s characters (father and son it transpires) rub up their different loneliness in recipes with blackout cuts very like a mini-play out of Florian Zeller’s The Father in tone too, as a defeated, now over-accompanied Thallon returns to live. Heartbreak comes with a side order. Sourdough seems a company joke. And when banana bread gets mentioned (laughter) and watches go missing we realize Zeller’s arrived (no laughter at all).

Memon’s verse monologue is a poem delivered with a quiet laconic sense of the epic. ‘And other things before they broke..’ It’s a ravishing still-point worth staying in before we’re back with the ad company. ‘Council house.. the right kind… aspirational.. I’m crossing out council…’ Levey’s monologue though suddenly erupts to elegy. ‘This Christmas return unto the barren earth from whence you came… Is that anything?’

Brayben’s discovered camping on and cultivating Memon’s grandmother’s land; an edgy alliance ensues. Braben’s wholly attuned to living in a tent and the minutiae of the natural world. The English wrens ‘would rather die than fly away.’ And Memon thinks she’s discovered her mirror half and Brayben’s happened on an unseasonal rose. ‘You’re here and it has to mean something. You’ve grown all this and it’s just one thorn.’ You hope furiously.

That’s full circle though Agyei-Ampadu’s fine moment summarises it – meditating on quarantine, motherhood with a daughter on life-support as bodies pile up in the corridor to the despairing, rousing repeat litany ‘I wish you were here…’ as Memon softly rounds the play, the ensemble gradually join in the best song of the lot, truly memorable. ‘Don’t tell me what happens tomorrow/just help me to get through tonight’ might seem 70s rehash but the melody’s powerful and we know what the words mean now.

Again Memon’s music is a highlight, a psychic glue going back to that campfire ethos: live guitar, piano, accordion around the stage; songs are as folksy as Memon’s acoustic guitar. The company have fine voices throughout; their ensemble singing reminds us of more than carolling, or church-sourced a cappella. An assertion of community, a defiantly warm thrum-through to the heart.

Such a bold communing of theatre stories and the fresh poignancy of what’s happened during 2020 deserves far more than critical appraisal. As it stands Nine Lessons gambols in the shadow of those Washburn narratives without being diminished.

For one thing it’s carefully constructed with through-narratives and a mirror-shape, even though at the last minute the Banana-bread and Deliveroo stories replaced more magic-realist riches no-one could get, as the post-show Q&A cheerfully reveals.

Yes, more amplitude in the already-connective tissue of character would be great, but the traceries are there. A bit more boldness, a commitment to fix those creatively fluid entities would give this show a life beyond. Because the dark’s rising, and it’s not over. Even this show like all London has suddenly gone dark till after Christmas. Help switch on the lights if you can, press the Donate.