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FringeReview UK 2021

Low Down

Directed by Jack Gamble from a version by Associate Director Quentin Baroud and Jack Gamble. Designed by Louie Whitemore, Lighting by Geoff Hense, Sound by Tom Attwood. Commedia dell’arte Consultant Natasha Harrison, Associate Choreographer Laura Dredger, Claire Nicolas Costume Supervisor. Lois Sime Company Stage Manager, Production Manager Pete Rickards for e-stage. Till August 7th.


‘Tell me what you want, what you really really want’ bellows Marius to sister Sylvia as he chases her round the sofa, 58th and 59th to the throne of somewhere as we whirl in bright flounces to a kind of now in Quentin Baroud’s and Jack Gamble’s faithful but espresso-updated 1730 Marivaux play, The Game and Love and Chance. Or as it was at the Orange Tree in 2017 The Lottery of Love.  Which was exquisite though didn’t have a pop quote every five  minutes.

And Marivaux is dangerous enough before you literally translate him and get lines like ‘two-state solutions’ and um ‘it’s in the bag’ designed to make Laura Kuenssberg purr in self-recognition. Of course it’s a bit about spoilt royalty so no contemporary parallels there I’m afraid. Some institutions have head-rolled by the wayside, but we get privilege. Especially if Ellie Nunn’s Sylvia seems a bit, well Fleabag. No, not a bit. Welcome to Arcola Outside. If you need a kick-start to theatre, this is it.

As Nunn collapses voluptuously onto the sofa and contemplates Sylvia’s new role-swap this version’s keenness never falters. You can take Essex out of the maid but you can’t put it back into the lady. In this caffeinated Commedia dell’arte take, it’s always the lower orders who show chameleon talents including accent. Upper orders are stuffed with well… natural nobility.

And in Sylvia’s case, though not her driver-clad inamorato Dorante (named by himself desperately as Catflap, noting the door, as Harlequin would give it away), this means someone whose accent’s set to stuck-up throughout, who literally can’t play a convincing maid. Because if she can, what has she left? She’ll be as vulnerable as her real soubrette maid Lisette with her accent compass. And it’s this very cusp of class and gender stereotyping that looks up for a bonfire or pitches women in particular into the terror of no status, twice, and the men into loss of new privilege and loss of inheritance.

This out-front exoskeletal dell-arte dance-off production of Marivaux pushes the comedy so frantically Feydeau you can see it teeter into the tumbrils. Marivaux was sixty years from that here, but his plays often interrogate class and colonial status (La Colonie, 1750) and even gender (La Dispute, 1744). Marivaux sues with that famed device ‘the metaphysics of love’ to push his other agendas but the great Encyclopedia’s at hand. You can smell the coffee. And a whiff of blood. Of course.  It’s the theatre.

Naturally this Arcola Outside production’s in a totally new space. A square construction adjacent to the theatre in Ashwin Street, it’s a covered outdoor affair with small rectangular stage in the stage-left corner with wooden box seats for two describing a horse-shoe around. It’s intimate, you get eyeballed by actors.  There’s illustrations online. It’s designed to be as covid-safe as possible

Directed by Jack Gamble from a painstakingly exact, painlessly updated version by himself and Associate Director Quentin Baroud there’s room for fourth-wall ad-libs like Sylvia’s ‘you knew didn’t you?’ to the audience. When such comments as Lord Orgon’s ‘I saw it on my email. (aside) Another seamless modernizing from an eighteenth-century text’ it’s close to an original aside. And the reason for Sylvia’s ‘digital detox’ becomes apparent. Contemporary references are simply modernised.

It’s designed – say the space is christened – by Louie Whitemore so active at the Arcola and Jermyn Street recently, in the latter’s bonkers production of 43 plays in its 12 weeks Footprints Festival. The orange sofa’s centre-stage, with two orange doors leading off at the end of each corner, with in-between a panorama curved round of a Rococo quiff of clouds. Lighting by Geoff Hense gets hyper-active when disco blasts in, though is otherwise sunshine. That sound by Tom Attwood (another Jermyn Street Festival habitué) is able to belt out Love Shack at the start and end so all the audience can do is get up. There’s no harsh edges, no shrillness.

Commedia dell’arte Consultant Did Hopkins is everywhere apparent particularly in the hand-gestures of protagonists, particularly Sylvia, Lisette, Dorante, Harlequin. Choreographer Natasha Harrison and Associate Choreographer Laura Dredger) amp up the float-offs as characters fly around the stage as well as dance numbers.

Claire Nicolas as Costume Supervisor co-ordinates the blue-grey livery of Lisette’s garb (nominally shared) and Dorante’s serge-grey driver’s uniform and peaked cap. Whilst brother Marius is relaxed gentleman, Harlequin’s shirt with white and light peach hints is the only quiet thing about him (being Dorante’s garb) but not his pink pantaloons, and Sylvia’s two dresses carry on the orange theme. First dress is all plunge and orange, whilst the gorgeous apparel as ‘Sylvia’ Lisette adorns herself in is orange sunshine itself flecked with a hint of green leaves on a white ground. It’s late 1960s feel but the production’s timelessly now.

Not that Sylvia’s in a mood to acknowledge Orgon’s suggestion she meet the son of an old friend. Nunn gushes her unravelment from uffishness – when confronting her more sexually-inclined maid Lisette, Beth Lilly’s sparky soubrette distilling venal common sense and healthy lust – to helpless desire herself. Hence double-entendres of ‘service’. Lilly dominates much of the first half with wondrously manic speeches on verbal disguise – we get a coloratura display of them – that bring the house down.

Marivaux does sexual infatuation. Nunn’s not simply transfixed; even in her overthrow manages to master events, eyeing us with mock and sometimes mock-real surprise. There’s depths to plumb here; this production’s logic brings less inwardness more expressive dilemma. Nunn shares – explicitly – a bewildering heart, playing it broad but edged with a sense of how this could go – say the 2017 production. Nunn nails Sylvia’s predicament, shares it straight to camera so to speak. This edges confidings: we know where we are.

David Acton’s gleefully liberal, sprightly Lord Orgon, typical of Marivaux comedies, is grand master of chances in a choice-less world. He forces nothing (though his name invokes memories of Tartuffe’s gull). He readily assents to Sylvia’s swapping places with Lisette to test this summer’s breath of a suitor, Amar Duffus’ Dorante.

What Sylvia doesn’t know is Orgon’s received a letter from his friend disclosing Dorante’s made exactly the same swap with his Man, Michael Lyle’s Harlequin. Brother Marius (drop-dead-but-jaw-cracking George Kemp) is in on this too, his masquerading as Lisette’s master-servant suitor – with mistress ‘Lisette’s’ only option – can’t hide the quietly desolate prankster, despite his gender-role sway of info. Kemp twists his posh smile one twitch from snarl.

Duffus’ Harlequinned Dorante ripples with a shy refinement which together with physical attraction wins Sylvia in a jaw-drop, much to her confused notions of class if not culture. Duffus’ formal addresses respectful to the maidservant he’s equally smitten by, disarm in their eloquence and swiftly ardent declarations – despite Marius’ egging them to address each other by first names. Harlequinned Dorante doesn’t help by ’I’ve never had much to do with chambermaids’ and we realise it’s not only Sylvia who must overcome prejudice in the face of true – if convenient – desire.

Marivaux prizes language as true class. Like the later The Dispute where a boy and girl are raised separately on an island away from any member of the opposite sex, Marivaux probes the essence of sexual attraction away from all preconceived trappings. Duffus’ baffled nobility smothers his confusion more briefly than even Nunn‘s Sylvia.

The contrast with the real Harlequin masquerading as Dorante is almost guyed. Lyle’s outré frothing with those soubriquets Marius recommends to Duffus’ pseudo-Harlequin, confirms Lyle’s Harlequin as servant class. It’s jarring to us that underlying all Marivaux’ stripping away of assumptions he still has to assume servants’ natural earthiness and their betters’ elegance – his times and Italianate master/servant comedy demanded it.

And here’s another Marivaux trick: Sylvia, learning the truth still tests Dorante to near-destruction provoking a crisis. The denouement however happily it concludes signals self-discovering, naked passion prepared to offer anything. It also restores agency. Father and brother have known all along. Marivaux’ Sylvia can get something of her own back so Dorante’s at the bottom of the knowledge table.

Acton and Kemp play ideally here, Lyle is a delight as raffish driver with winking warmth, threatening cartwheels; Lilly is virtuosic when she gets a chance, a standout. Duffus brings affecting truth to a role depending on the noble straight-man to the end, with the occasional rap of command to bring his heel of a man to heel. Nunn’s agonised rapture of a part is a winning way – with all else outré dell-arte here – she can answer Lilly. Nunn’s smouldering sexiness stoops to conquer Sylvia’s involuntary desire; love levels. She’s more of a comedian than some Sylvias; she recruits us. Goldsmith learned a thing from Marivaux.

It’s a full two-hour twenty with interval. There’s no cuts and this translation and production triumphs in there not being a beat too long or drop of energy. The commedia fizz returns it to roots in exquisitely-impaled assumptions. There’s a precipitation of pure-at-heart to distil the impossible; and those of drossier elements we all derive from. There’s a breath of danger. See it.