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FringeReview UK 2019


Royal Court Theatre and Selina Thompson

Genre: Contemporary, New Writing, Political, Short Plays, Solo Performance, Storytelling, Theatre

Venue: Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs


Low Down

Directed by Dawn Walton, designed by Katherina Radeva, lit by Cassie Mitchell, relit by Louise Gregory. Sound design by Tajua Amarasuriya around composition by Sleepdogs. Till June 1st.


There’s a telling full stop after the title – dictionary definition, pause, where there’s many in the next 85 minutes. And Rochelle Rose periodically wields a sledge hammer (goggles provided) to the large pale pink crystal of rock-salt and later offers a chunk to departing audience members.


salt. Worth stopping for. But stooping? It’s never explicitly stated in Selina Thompson’s monologue, but salt-works in Virginia and the Caribbean destroyed not only so many African lives but infused Caribbean recipes including saltfish. Salt’s many things, seasoning the colonies with blood – this is pink rock-salt – sweat, tears, the sting of wounds after lashes. Thompson’s far too good at the subliminal to state this. Rose wields a sledgehammer, like millions before her recounting Thompson’s pilgrimage round the white bones of the British slave routes. And the ocean’s wake continually parted. It’s good to see this multiple award-winning show stop for a very few weeks at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs.


Riffing on T. S. Eliot’s lines from the Four Quarters about homecoming and ‘knowing it for the first time’ Thompson’s are less satisfied with themselves, more probing: ‘We imagine that we are on a journey, that life is a journey, but we are home from the beginning. This is not an easy thing to accept.’


Directed by Dawn Walton with a sure pace, it’s designed with appropriate starkness by Katherina Radeva, consisting of a blacked out Upstairs, a table with incense and implements below, to the right some fruit representing a few rest-points in the Caribbean leg of the narrative. And that huge chunk of rock-salt in front of the table: not huge for long. It’s all lit hauntingly by Cassie Mitchell especially blue-hazed under the ocean, with relighting by Louise Gregory. Sound by Tajua Amarasuriya envelopes us in a roar of ocean too, above or below, punctuated by compositions from the Sleepdogs.


Relating a litany of racist comments that her Nan encountered, including a myth of the good and lazy child washing off their dirt in the ocean (particularly shocking in its twee nastiness) there’s Thompson’s growing up to confront too.


So she’s decided to embark on that journey stung by ‘where are you really from?’ which instead of Thompson’s flipping over a table when asked – as she imagines, politely never does – she decides to flip over history instead. Starting with where she’s from: Birmingham.


With a camerawoman she embarks on a ship to Ghana. There’s the master – a blue-eyed blonde Italian: ‘the sort of infantile, malice-laced bounce that I associate with men like Boris Johnson’. Which garners the one great laugh of this poignant work. And it twists superbly on just that complicity, just that coincidence. The master learns they want to film the sea as images of a slave-ship route he astonishingly forbids it, since all that’s forgotten and – slippage here – he doesn’t want it dragged up again on his ship. And there aren’t port holes to sneak a camera through either. ‘Europe pushes against me’ as Thompson repeats. Her companion returns by mutual agreement when they disembark and she’s alone.


There’s a moment when in some distress Thompson sees three Ghanaian women coming aboard to work. And having been told thrice she can’t yet disembark yet (the parallels!), finally does so, slipping away.


Tracing this journey Thompson’s in a kind of sonar, sounding depths via Skype to her father who ends every talk with a ‘hmmm’ quizzically but gently patriarchal. He can’t quite believe Thompson; Thompson finds she can’t quite believe some of her own narratives. She’s in acute distress. Raw doesn’t cover it and Thompson’s too acute in her register of voices to be confined to such shorthand. We see raw through a vision of simmering coals.


Shattering then arranging crazed, distressed chunks into rows of oppression, Rose quietly mesmerizes her audience.


With Ghana other writers are cited, like Saidiya Hartman, witnessing how many histories deep we might go. It’s Jamaica that heals her. Yet there’s a litany of loss to go through including an unexpected personal one. ‘I don’t think the sea wants us here. It is impossible to pay our respects.’ This triggers a final catastrophe, then a redemptive surfacing.


It’s a beautifully-crafted narrative with mirror and recognizable repeat moments varied poignantly, with verse passages slipping back through different rhythms. . Rose is consummate: confiding, warm, sardonic, vulnerably angry, adamantine.


Ultimately though, this is a deeply humane work, calling on the audience’s warmth and communing; not its possible guilt, anger or remorseful action. Not only does Rose address that audience confidingly at the opening and close, Thompson’s framed this as a sharing, not an act of separation. Rose breaks the salt. We’re offered it ‘salt to heal, salt to remember, salt for your bath, for your nourishment and above all for your wounds.’ Take it.