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Brighton Fringe 2022

Low Down

Directed by Jannette Eddisford, Costume and Props by Daniel Finlay, Lighting Technical Stage Manager Apollo Videaux.

Till June 5th


The incense hits you so much you cough. Welcome to the scent of a dead man. This is Damien, he died in 1889. He’s bemused to find himself a saint too.

He tells you his intake of death, burial, exhumation sixty years on with no hint of the leprosy that killed him; so was it imagined? Or miraculously left him uncorrupted. He’s sceptical; in surprisingly up-to-date narration tells you how he touches down in an aircraft, taken to Belgium and re-interred. With pomp and lined plenitudes of bishops.

American Aldyth Morris (1901-97) wrote Damien, The Leper Priest of Molokia in 1976 for Terence Knapp who toured it from Honolulu across the States. Daniel Finlay – who’s grown up with the play – has inhabited it since 2016, garnering five-stars. His revival at the Lantern Theatre runs to June 5th. It’s the finest one-person revival there, Finlay the actor associated with the part created by Knapp.

Finlay, bearded, cassocked, owns stillness among bric-a-brac, exquisite props ranging from a music-box to his left to chests draped with a Belgian flag downstage centre, health posters on a wire there too, one ripped off furiously, items drawn, returned to the chest, like a wreath of roses from his flock.

And stage-right a screen against the Lantern’s curtains, where images of the spit rise up; post-play an illustrated script of narrative. The Lantern’s curtains can ruck these, but the print’s clear. Behind there’s a wooden confessional, long-tailored for the show. Props are outstanding.

Directed by Jannette Eddisford, this is a consummate production in a space whose curtained T challenges. It’s studded by costume and props, with superb lighting and technical management from Apollo Videaux, who’s lit ten Fringe plays and deserves special mention. From chiaroscuro through bright through tenebrous red, this is high professional standard, sculpting a world and maximising use of objects to throw shadows, illumine Finlay himself.

Belgian Father Damien’s story is told to Catholic children ardent (or not) for some desperate glory. The Church however loved him dead that fought him alive; as soon as he declared himself a leper, was declared legally dead.

Finlay’s way with this 75-minute edited version is rapt, violent when standing up for people deported to an island to die without medical aid, sanitation, food or priest (save sporadic visits).

We’re sped to Damien’s early life. Born 1840 Jozef de Vesteur had a father who’d ‘lost’ two elder daughters and son Auguste to the church, was about to lose a fourth, intended for the family’s grain-merchant line. Lucky father had three children left.

Jozef was the opposite of modest Auguste; only intervention by intemperate and ‘not modest for God’ Jozef – appealing over heads – got Jozef’s posting when another fell ill. No way could Father Damien, as he’s henceforth known, be tolerated by a parish.

Finlay reins in volcanic Damien by purring penitent, Godly Damien. Finlay flicks irony from eyebrows, havers with an equivocating palm (benefits of Damien-riddance), moves on castors around nodal objects he plucks moments from… that draped Belgian flag, for pompous obsequies.

Prostrating his cause arms flung out, we’re catapulted into mission. Details harrow, but if we expect we’re going to be on a long dirge of succour to suppurating wounds we’d be surprised. Morris can pluck an audience’s interest, pique expectations.

For one thing whilst Damien’s welcome to shuttle between mainland and this spit, to make confession to his bishop. And to thunder furious requests to the Board of Health, his antagonist. Doesn’t help he mixes with his flock. Build a chapel? He built it with the aid of one man. Share food?

For another, not all on that spit are leprous. Attending one feast, the daughter of the house appears on his threshold, naked. Don’t think Damien’s not tempted. His litany of poverty, chastity obedience taken as a child long before, kick in. It’s a fight; Finlay lets us know how much tumescence thunders under the cassock. He confesses this to his first bishop: a man praising Damien aginat his wish, in oblique humour. Temptations are the point, being unmoved is no virtue. God needs awkward priests. Only awkward changes anything.

More, Finlay illustrates by lightning flashes to the Board ways to tend patients, mentor community leaders to build houses, schools, roads, hospitals more than the deserted shack for dying he discovers (ferocious glint here); those wooden churches. Which sets him on a roar and shows you the spit’s extent. Finlay moves roars downstage; upstage he reflects, sitting; once, extreme stage-left in a bright halo, sitting profile-on in rapt gear-change.

More personally – Finlay does this tenderly – Damien dresses residents’ ulcers, builds a reservoir, redwood coffins, digs graves, not just shallow ones encountered on his first day as a quivering bundle of rags jerks still. That’s storytelling injected with pathos. Damien gets out a pipe, shares it, eats poi with them.

The second bishop and revivified Board of Health do their worst, after Finlay removes his sandals, dips his left foot in water. He places his right, shouts with pain. Scalding; the left feels nothing, peels white.

Morris’ narrative curls to that interment Damien opposes; amused travelogue swerves whiffs of political incense (the physical dispersed) with Finlay’s irreverent take.

He’s never seen the family farm changed, that upper storey’s constructed for his carnal return. The end’s submission, both to the will of the lachrymose who insist on sanctifying him, and to God, downstage with a Tenebrae fade.

Finlay deploys an ideal range of colours and notes, letting his register explode occasionally. Vocally he reaches lesser climaxes and reins to a final tremor, fades. Bass notes mark harmonic smooth ascents and drops. Use of props is now absolute, as is Videaux’ lighting, which shapes sky and land.

I didn’t see the 2019 production, reviewed on this site, and haven’t referred to it. But this outing – I include the lighting – must be deemed outstanding on all counts, not least for triumphing over those thrice-blessed curtains. Do see it before it closes.