FringeReview UK 2017
Directed by Chelsea Walker Claire McIntyre’s 1988 three-hander Low Level Panic is revived at the Orange Tree designed by Rosanna Vize lit at transparent door posts by Elliot Griggs. Richard Hammarton’s sound focuses on pop-music jolts.
Claire McIntyre’s breakthrough 1988 three-hander Low Level Panic is revived at the Orange Tree directed by Chelsea Walker with a remarkable design by Rosanna Vize featuring a 1980s avocado bathroom replete with a cassette deck clunked into playback, and memorably lit at transparent doorposts by Elliot Griggs. Sound and composition by Richard Hammarton introduces musical and sonically disturbed jolts.
This is where women might feel safe, where there are as it were fewer emergencies. Three flatmates in their twenties jostle for colour-me-time which in Celia’s case means a ritual laying-out of bath bottles.
Jo played with casual-seeming aplomb by Katherine Pearce ploshes about in the bath read to by the self-consciously svelte Mary wearing sunglasses indoors, lent panache and panic by Sophie Melville. She’s reading out found porn, which Jo both repudiates but asks a repeat of. Mary ends by tearing it up and lobbing balled sheets out of the window, that like the whole structure allows us, the audience, to gaze through as voyeurs.
Jo’s singing is revealing: Pearce’s sashay between lyric and lust is deft and touching. Talking to Mary she breaks into ‘she was just seventeen’ which Mary wryly reminds her she isn’t. Alone, though, talking to the air mirrors that are the audience, she ‘regresses’ to opera in the children’s prayer from Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel. At some Alpha-point Jo was perfect. Jo also robustly fantasises in this scene of three-in-a-cab sex but hates her body, constantly dreaming it thin. Though conjuring up a yacht millionaire with her legs upended and stating ‘Fucking makes the world go around. It’s the only thing that makes being grown-up worthwhile’ she counters Mary: ‘Don’t talk soft. Men don’t have figures. They’ve got jobs.. and important things..’ She’s thinking thin but not the way she wants.
Mary’s monologue, unlike Jo’s not confided to her flat-mate, is the reverse. Hauling the plastic tap/shower adaptor (remember them?) as a bike handle she re-enacts her sexual assault and humiliation with voices off (sounding not male as directed but cast imitating male, a neat touch). Male sexual violence underpins her life, and despite the fantasies, defines Mary’s response. Coincidentally a ‘groom rapist’ reportedly using similar tactics was convicted on the day of this performance. But you could pick any day of the run for a similar headline.
Celia’s the vestigial one, very slightly older, breezy catalyst to the others spending their lives plotting their way out of the bathroom and back in. Life’s finding the right face powder. ‘I’ve got green eyes so I have to be careful… I don’t look like anything at all without make-up.’ Brutally, she’s the one who pulls. Samantha Pearl exudes the flimsy assurance of Celia, easily flummoxed and prone to accuse Jo of messy dyes in the bath when in fact the dress Mary was persuaded to buy, being flesh pink, is dyed purple by Mary herself – whose desire to colour herself unsexy is incomprehensible to Celia. She doesn’t know Mary’s groundless fear that she provoked assailants by wearing an obligatory work skirt. McIntyre’s symbolism, as with the music, is exact, understated, too easily overlooked.
The shock of this play’s relevance after nearly thirty years throbs in each scene, solo or the sudden yanking of Mary to a party. It’s the uninvited Celia, taken in camaraderie, who makes a splash though. Jo’s mild indignation is painfully, universally funny – Pearce makes the most of her comedic, panicking angst. The denouement of that has Mary and Jo ramping up anxiety their one intimate space might be invaded. Splashes of colour, visibility, status informs even the last question, about pink champagne.
Jo’s overtly sexual self-definition might celebrate her own vibrant desire, own a certain liberation. In such reduction to object, though, you see Mary’s damage has by contrast jump-cut such illusion. And image provides the most memorable monologue, where Mary climbs a relief-poster of a gorilla fingering a thin woman, only to find it a model, not a photo: ’I felt a lot happier they hadn’t used anyone real to make the picture.’ It’s the thinnest of reliefs: jumping down you realize it’s all Mary can cling to. Melville’s shimmering anxiety gleams like a bathroom in a hopeless dawn.
Walker paces this steadily but there’s not a touch of hiatus: it’s far more engrossing than its nominal time-frame. This might seem a slight play at seventy-five minutes of apparently low-key plotting and vestigial images, but after thirty years it loses nothing in impact. Time’s conferred both an indictment and uneasy classic status to this masterly first sliver of a much-missed dramatist.