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FringeReview UK 2020

Low Down

Directed by John Haidar, Lucy Osborne’s gorgeous set design seems more a pleasure dome with receding glass windows lit by Malcolm Rippeth’s tangible gloaming. Adam Cork’s score and sound design hints its melancholy. Andy McDonald’s Production Manager, Sophie James-Frost Costumer Supervisor, Matthew Ferrie Production Sound Engineer, Alex Ramsden Chief Electrician. Till April 4th.



After a final speech from Sonya – that Sonya – the pitch of Brian Friel’s Afterplay rises to more than a touch of sublimity. As godfather to Chekhov characters – less than a parent, more than a foster-parent he states – Friel’s scrupulous about where his two characters come from: so where they might go.

Andrey porting an instrument case tells Sonya he’s a desk violinist rehearsing La Boehme with a strict Munich conductor. Sonya’s grappling with a spread of estate accounts under advice from the Ministry of Agriculture. You can hear the rev of farm equipment as she marks off what she’s been told to plant: trees. That takes her back.

Though punning on the 18th century Afterpiece and foreplay, this is no slight entertainment. A postlude set in Moscow in the early 1920s, Uncle Vanya’s Sonya (Mariah Gale) is joined in a café for two nights by Rory Keenan’s Andrey, hapless brother of Three Sisters.

So Afterplay for one hour finds two people nearly twenty years on from where we last saw them. They’re now struggling in an early Soviet Russia, an air no Chekhov character breathed till now. Andrey slurps up cabbage soup and offers fresh-because-brown bread (no, Sonya doesn’t get it either), but Sonya’s not so open: surreptitiously swigs a bottle of vodka, or splashes it into cold tea.

Andrey seems more agile now – in fact quite an improviser though he can’t recall when his cuckolding wife died. Sonya’s even lonelier since Uncle Vanya died 19 years back. Revealingly she names the day: September 9th. Whilst Sonya conceals feelings and an incipient alcoholism you’d not have predicted, Andrey, now sober turns out a bit drunk over facts.

His wife’s not ‘about’ seventeen years dead as he first claims, but abandoned their children to Andrey. Chekhov hinted the daughter Sophie isn’t Andrey’s, though Friel elides that. Andrey embroiders their lives for a while till he doesn’t. The fate of Bobik the eldest, is why Andrey commutes to Moscow. No, Bobik’s not a doctor, gave up after a year. And about Andrey’s sister Masha’s fate you feel he’s stone sober. ‘Their life in Tagnarog is a sort of protracted waiting time for the real life that has still to happen… that their authentic life is available here, in the Moscow of their childhood.’ Moscow’s sacred for the sisters, but for Andrey perhaps it’s them.

Directed by John Haidar, every detail absorbs, and Chekhov’s gently-stuck characters – who stoicize despair while grasping at new life – emerge at their own pace. There’s pauses, never longeurs. Lucy Osborne’s gorgeous set design seems more a pleasure dome with receding glass windows like some turn-of-century oil of Moscow life. There’s twists of light and snow, high-and-low lamplight (lighting ever shifts in Malcolm Rippeth’s tangible gloaming), loping evening shadows and – did I say – glass? It’s breathtaking. Dead centre to this receding set there’s a table where Andrey angles to be invited to sit with spreadsheet Sonya. Stage left there’s an exit, also useful for bouts of nerves and faux-retreats. Adam Cork’s score and sound design hints its melancholy.

Sonya comes clean with a polished-off vodka bottle between them, slow-rending her love for Dr Astrov, bonding over Vanya’s death-bed: ‘A man with a vision; and close to saintliness; and not always sober.’ Astrov visits when he’s been drinking. You feel Sonya’s taken to the bottle after sympathy bouts with him.

You might pick Friel’s recreations apart. Sonya and Andrey at first pick up the threads of yesterday evening’s confidings, though Sonya at first half-forgets Andrey’s existence. So why do things converge tonight? The warm-up dynamics of yesterday need more of a hint. Here, the late ramping-up of Andrey’s feelings seem a bit unprepared-for. But with the quality of writing elsewhere, and these actors, it’s easy to accept the larger truths of Afterplay.

Keenan’s Andrey even frolicking with truth seems more solid than pathetic: and looks like Chekhov himself. Andrey’s self-deception and weakness harden to deceiving others, till he relents, when Keenan conveys threadbare stoicism and dogged courage.

Gale’s still-youthful Sonya exudes a playful, almost girlish warmth Friel declines to alter. Though now there’s a sly truthfulness and beneath the matte carapace of a Soviet hair-bun a passion more explosive for its tending over twenty years. Gale suggests gnarled nobility rippling her youth. Both she and Keenan show the cost of period restraint, even over a moment that comes straight out of The Cherry Orchard; with a saving twist.

Sonya’s final speech sheers off all the patina of early-Soviet coping to that ‘bleak tundra of aloneness that stretches before me’ and it’s heart-stopping. Friel’s genius is to catch both what’s apparently changed against the grain of what hasn’t. The way both these characters have got to Moscow, have turned round their lives to a bitter coping, signals a flutter of hope. Andrey’s unravelling truths and Sonya’s speech at the end shows their DNA hasn’t caught up with this. Even so, Friel leaves a final act of Andrey’s – however hopeless – as possible salvation: writing.

Friel’s miraculously-attuned idiom brings truths his model would surely applaud: a wafer-thin but absolutely genuine slice of Chekhov. And pure Coronet at their exquisite best. Do see it.