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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Blanche McIntyre directs this Wanamaker revival. Ti Green creates a white set whose sudden reveal still occludes the traditional Wanamaker with an array of strung pigs, market ware and stage props. Prima Mehta supervises non-candled lighting, Cleo Maynard the candles. Composer Grant Olding’s score strikes a folksy violin/guitar/bass/tuba sound. Coral Messam’s choreography has to twin tight space with wild gesture. Cathy Hill supervises the fantastical costumes made by a team of four. Megan Cassidy co-ordinates the wardrobe’s multiple sourcing, with Gemma Fox and Karen Shannon’s millinery, Pam Humpage’s wigs. Philip d’Orleans is the fight director. Giles Block’s textual editing is more crucial than on other productions. Till October 12th.


At first glance you’d think Ben Jonson’s 1614 sprawling Bartholomew Fair a natural for the Globe’s main house. It’s an outdoor comedy with 30 bustling characters played by a cast of 12, hectic scenes seemingly gloved for that space: all those stalls and cozening Londoners rushing through groundlings. We get that, to scale.

Indeed Blanche McIntyre’s production attempts to invoke daylight by opening the shutters on the indoor Wanamaker’s theatre. And the Wanamaker’s initially occluded in a coup of white curtains and set of white indoor lounge-chairs, as if we’re in another space, initially denying this one. Then the reveal equally masks the Wanamaker’s woodwork. It echoes an untapped kinship with David Eldridge’s equally riotous 2006 Market Boy at the National.

Jonson’s language immediately tells us why it’s in the Wanamaker. City comedies are notoriously specific and often need smart updates to work at all. Jonson’s quips and jokes are densely allusive and topical, even edited-down; to even catch at half of them an indoor venue’s mandatory. And there’s those lightning-changes, the fastest I remember seeing: it means someone smears on two kinds of make-up with a quick-change of clothes (e.g. red to blue-grey) in a few seconds.

There’s an rov-like prologue with announcements and noises off as Joshua Lacey’s persuaded to go on as proctor John Littlewit (he’s also smooth cutpurse Ezekeil Edgworth garbed like Bulldog Drummond with plus-fours). Littlewit starts us off, with his pregnant wife Win – Boadicea Ricketts – who dazzles between Win and Nightingale, a chanteuse balladeer joining the trio of musicians when they descend.

He’s abetted by friends Quarlous (Jude Owsu, one of the most ebullient sharpers of the lot) and Heyydd Dylan’s Winwife – not be confused with Win – where Dylan gives one of the most assured performances. Winwife’s after marrying Anita Reynolds’ querulous Dame Purecraft. Littlewit’s brokering the marriage; so what could go wrong?

So there’s Jenna Augen. We first see her as Zeal-of-the-Land-Busy, an American revivalist hypocrite updated from Jonson’s puritan and channelling a bit of W. C. Fields. And seemingly mad in sky blue and cirrus costumery as well as make-up. A fortune-teller told Dame Purecraft she’d never be happy unless she married one. Augen deploys a kind of drawling quick-change when required to turn adamantine precepts on their head. A beat and it’s flipped.

Augen’s other role – and this costume-change is a lightning-rod – is Ursula the pig-woman, a fantastical denizen of the great fair, someone whose puce costume and sores centrifuges all that explodes around her; and on her when she injures her leg chasing off Quarlous and Winwife. Augen’s Ursula is more compelling than her excellent fist at the puritan, whose nasty prescience Jonson skewers. This revivalist straw is too good-humoured; Ursula seethes with a touch of anguish.

The schemers are joined by Bryony Hannah’s refeened Grace Wellborn (doubling as fisty-thinking horsedealer Daniel ‘Jordan’ Knockem) and Zach Wyatt’s bizarrely complacent character Bartholomew Cokes, who wants to be cozened and play at losing everything at the fair. His servant Wasp – Forbes Masson with pate and red hair – burnishes an image that won’t fade easily, triggering quarrels, charging bull-headed. There’s Cokes’ sister Alice Overdo (Anne Odeke, also Joan Trash) married to the JP who ends up throwing up as she and Win encounter drugging and sex-trafficking.

Dickon Tyrrell’s Adam Overdo JP is a delight with his forms that more punctilious juniors keep invoking (even one to sit down). Self-appointed as a disguised moral centre, a fantastical dude of dark corners, no duke, he’s both moral commentator and someone whose own moral authority is finally called into question – and has the grace to recognize his limitation. It’s in the final drawing-together of Act Five with Overdo’s unravelling and humiliation that we realize what plot Jonson’s disguised for so long. And so well. Too well perhaps.

Richard Katz lumbers niftily as security guard Lantern Leatherhead (Jonson’s names at least are transparent), and Trouble-All an OCD quarrel-chaser and occasional puppeteer. Jude Owusu’s chancy gamester and a leatherette punkette sashays in and out of the cut-pursing and McInyre edges danger with a sudden knife. A flash of four centuries in this cut-throat, violent London. It’s a darkness the end underscores.

Ti Green creates a white set whose sudden reveal still occludes the traditional Wanamaker with an array of strung pigs, some sliced open dangling above market ware and stage props: benches and a floor suffused with blood and a hint of sawdust. Prima Mehta supervises non-candled lighting, Cleo Maynard the candles, far less in evidence.

Composer Grant Olding’s score strikes a folksy violin/guitar/bass/tuba sound and this trio often drop like avatars with Ricketts. Coral Messam’s superfine choreography has to twin tight space with wild gesture and an extravagance of costume-changes. Cathy Hill supervises fantastical costumes (particularly for Jenna Augen) made by a team of four. Megan Cassidy co-ordinates the wardrobe’s multiple sourcing; Pam Humpage’s wigs score with everyone but Augen’s again the pinnacle. Philip d’Orleans as fight director allows a deft bleed into the audience.

Giles Block’s textual editing is more crucial than on other productions. McIntyre claims each scene is essential though the text would ramble over three-and-a-half hours. It’s cut drastically if ingeniously here; perhaps it doesn’t quite breathe as it might, rather adding to confusion. The obverse though might be worse.

There’s a heartening Globe aesthetic, real pears tossed to the audience, with flyers for a puppet-show in the gallery handed out; which relevance is sadly nearly lost. It again begs questions. This play’s been cut down to run even under the 2 hours 30 deemed de rigeur for many new shows. But if each scene’s been left vestigially intact, some of the connections are lost, or simply not underscored enough.

The end though with characters going off in pain reveals the human cost of resolution. It’s a darkness McIntyre’s brought out from melancholy uniquely suffusing this late-summer text: a valedictory brio before autumn, Jonson’s last triumph. And it’s McIntyre’s triumph to give these pinball collisions a measure of grace and integrity.

Jonson’s dizzying and specific too, and this shows why he’s sometimes difficult to revive, more so than for instance Middleton in his City comedies. Jonson’s genius can sound through the baffle, and this comedy’s the most challenging of the lot. McIntyre’s choices aren’t always right: she pinches sense on occasion. Her production’s insights, insets, energy – with superb vignettes and sometimes more provided by 12 actors – more than compensate though. From Augen (above all) to Wyatt, they’re mesmerising. If only one could see it twice, it’s rarely mounted: but try it at least once. And it helps to read the synopsis first.