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FringeReview UK 2020

Low Down

Directed by Jennifer Tang, Genesis Fellow, State and auditorium designed by Craig Tyr, lit by Sam McLeod, with Sound Design and Live Stream by Michael Kyle MacPherson, Costumes designed by Sarah Hamza. Stage Manager Debra Tidd, DSM Mary O’Hanlon. Till October 31st and may return.


So what happens when between lockdowns a theatre decides to commission new work and mount it all in a single performance, twice?

With The New Tomorrow the Young Vic chose to open a showcase of short plays – many especially wrought but not necessarily shaped by covid. Kwame Kewi-Armah Jr’s initiative brings six plays, two songs and three speeches over one hour 45, for the most part riveting. To see six playwrights respond so freshly was inspiring, suggestive of how some may develop, some may veer into new directions. Directed by Jennifer Tang, state and auditorium are designed by Craig Tyr, it’s lit by Sam McLeod, with sound design and live stream by Michael Kyle MacPherson, Costumes are designed by Sarah Hamza.


There’s a generosity here, a big hug in an agenda calling for the value of art, specifically theatre to be recognized. And theatre itself affirms the value of life to those who might yet shape it for the better.

During this brief window in late summer and autumn, theatre’s come alive again, sometimes with distanced or no audiences, often streamed live; some available online for a limited period. There’s been revivals of plays lost to lockdown, notably the Harold Pinter’s Uncle Vanya, reassembling its cast in that empty theatre for a filmed version. Four others were re-assembled for Radio 4. There’s been live events and a creative combo where Chichester Festival ran a week of live performances of Sarah Kane’s magnificent Crave to an audience with online facilities. When Lockdown 2 hit, those who’d booked the last three performances live moved online where others had already chosen that option.

Way to go? Covid’s shaping theatre. A creative response suggests reach through online streaming will be possible to the vulnerable, physically distant, and/or disabled audience members as never before. Amidst such loss, some good things have been accelerated.

We were straight into the first of two songs composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge with Anoushka Lucas performed by Oli Briant, Love Again a soulful smouldering number, upbeat as you’d expect.

Kwame Kwei-Armah introduced with a rousing speech and was followed by a nuanced one by Shadida Bari, both addressing Black Lives Matter issues and firmly placing the Young Vic’s mission before us as the plays rolled.


Steve Waters Yesterday’s Gone

Riffing on the Fleetwood Mac song a civil servant appealingly played with passion and heart by Matthew Dunster says ably what we’d all like to say to our current government’s ministers, the one in particular an imagined vade mecum of every department, though not happily the killer clown himself. Sunak perhaps, the PM in waiting?

Waters has Dunster’s blue-suited unnamed civil servant argue for a total reset, from everything to green jobs and economy, to stop subsidizing pals running airlines and a general socialist redistribution. John Macdonnell could hardly have wished for better. Waters energizes the performance with a climax where Dunster starts cajoling the minister to sing along with him a song that neither much noted, but seems the upbeat possibility we all pray for. And this is a prayer, a heartfelt plea to the heartless, a covid-shaped paean to the future, a near hopeless manifesto to a hopeless government. It rouses us differently, and as a monologue it raises the curtain on more nuanced conflicts.


Stef Smith The New Tomorrow

Lending its title to the whole showcase, Stef Smith’s return after her triumphant Nora shortly before lockdown performed by Adjoa Andoh is a wrenched, thoughtful monologue on what it’s like to be torqued into a new tomorrow no-one wanted; but which raises fundamental human questions. Calling upon collective memory for the past few months, Smith as ever refracts the details of what change, what die out, what gets emphasized. Curiously it’s an elusive text, but raised with memorable imagery, imagining elsewheres thickly, refractedly, almost despairingly. The end’s lyrical with a glimmer of hope. You feel this perfectly directed monologue has legs and can grow.


Jasmine Lee-Jones Black Pain Redux

Jasmine Lee-Jones’ explosive premier seven methods of killing kylie jenner was killingly funny and verbally alone one of the most exhilarating plays of recent years. With Lee-Jones there always seem an undertow of consequence for such exuberance, as if you shouldn’t be too exuberant, or demons will rise.

And for Lee-Jones, in the audience as performer and friend Paapa Essiedu gestures toward her, there’s a harrowing story of sexual abuse and a suicide attempt. Lee-Jones’ narrative of trust betrayed, of zero self-esteem, almost self-loathing, you feel the exuberance of her first play owns longer shadows. If you can return to that play’s text, naturally its dark glares more lucidly back at you. But Black Pain Redux digs altogether further and more personally. It’s an astonishingly brave portrayal, baring very recent trauma in what must be a nurturing environment.

Marian Carr’s Nail Your Heart again composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge with Anoushka Lucas and performed by Oli Briant, ups the energy and expression with some aoring lyricism of its own.


Amy Ng Antigone

Amy Ng explores a contemporary Antigone challenging not only patriarchy but the whole of ancient imperial constructs and there’s no doubt of her aim. Ronke Adékoluéjo demonstrates an urgency and enormous clarity – as in the original. There’s no muzzy versioning of hidden motives or unconscious drives This Antigone knows exactly what she’s up against, what it will cost, and she will win.


Ruth Madeley and Jack Thorne Emoji Tennis

The most heart-warming, tender and funny monologue was in fact co-written: Ruth Madeley’s and Jack Thorne’s Emoji Tennis explores Tinder sex, dating apps – when you’re deaf and need to consider ESL as part of the vocabulary of seduction. From gesture and pratfalls, from small heart-stopping disasters from dodgy chat-ups to the absolute refusal of Sophie Stone’s character to be patronized or thought of as sexually passive, or indeed vulnerable. As Stone sashays her young woman negotiating with a computer with a man in it somewhere, we’re continually ambushed: sexual agency is a given, till there’s a lurch into vulnerability It’s still upbeat, sassy, sexy and just occasionally a one-sided scream.


Tom Gill Speech

Tom Gill’s monologue in rap verse done uniquely here from memory, negotiating his own ignorance of certain kinds of racism is a mesmerising apologia – a hymn of repentance to comrades in BLM and a moving traversal of his own ‘I don’t see colour’ to seeing very clearly. As a tour-de-force it takes the day by storm, and though nothing like as vulnerable as Lee-Jones, is as naked and in its way brave.


Jade Anouka Hope

To bookend the first play by Waters Jade Anouka’s Hope performed by Martina Laird leads a much-needed fillip to point us in a coherent human as opposed to just political direction. It’s rousing but generating more light than heat: ‘Let’s be anarchists in the systems that have held us back, black, brown…’ ‘I see us out coming out of this with a new kind of community’ and some sharp words to who doesn’t want that: ‘get the hell out of here’.

Hope inscribes the loss of our living in Covid as an opportunity, our one chance. It’s a call to arms, to link arms. ‘Ceilings are made of glass for a reason/and collectively we can break through ones of concrete too’. There’s a fine couple of performances of this on Youtube.

These were all moving, sometimes virtuosic, sometimes plunging fathoms deeper than such an occasion might suggest. The songs and speeches all felt like an occasion is was a privilege to drop in on. Of the monologues Yesterday’s Gone is a fine memorial to our wishes for true governance. The New Tomorrow would be worth seeing again – its layered thoughtfulness needs some space. Antigone too seems a fascinating embryo.

Black Pain Redux and Emoji Tennis linger most: the first a searing autobiographical work, ‘as if I have to dissect myself and read the anatomy lesson’ as Andrew Marvell once put it. Emoji Tennis is a heart-warming original, funny provoking work that deserves a long life. The two closing items – Gill’s self-flagellating virtuosity and Anouka’s cascading lyricism, lucid and memorable – make a fitting close. Performers were brought on three by three with a closing speech by Kweh-Armah. You feel like you’re watching the drama Olympics, but even four weeks seems too long to wait for the return of the indoor radiance on show here.