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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Directed by Nadia Latif with design by Tom Scutt and Lighting by Jessica Hung Han Yun, Sound Design Xana. Theo TJ Lowe.

Production Manager Marty Moore, Costumer Supervisor Lucy Martin, Props Supervisors Chris Marcus and Jonathan Hall for Marcus Hall Props, Hair and Makeup Consultant Dominique Hamilton, Fight Director Kev McCurdy.

Associate Designer David Allen, Resident Assistant Director Josh Parr, Assistant Sound Designer Iman Muhammad, Assistant Lighting Designer Ayana Enomoto-Hurst.

Till June 4th


Clue’s in the title. A plural, a sashay in time between the historic Mary Seacole and her heirs, sometimes avatars. The dramatist of Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury in Marys Seacole uses the Donmar’s intimacy to discover worlds to us.

It’s thrilling, momentarily disorienting for some reviewers but clear as to where we are. In seven tableaux we’re firmly presented with an antiphonal swing between the 19th and 21st centuries, but there’s more behind this one hour-forty-five drama; and without spoilers it’s worth mapping too.

As a parable on how women have not only been primary care-givers but innovators, constantly slighted, it’s an unnerving play and doesn’t forgive is. It equally treats how Black women have – as happened to Seacole – been discriminated against by other women, including Florence Nightingale. Not the only one here.

Tom Scutt’s design is a stark hospital eggshell green curtain and behind the curtain another with pockets unfolding many props, then a bed. Till near the end it’s a simple swinging on and off of beds, chairs, dummy busts. Then that changes.

Kayla Meikle’s Mary enters in period dress – the one in the photograph – to narrate her early life, with ‘Scots blood in my veins… wonderlust and always active, always working.’ There’s the first difference taken from Seacole’s autobiography: she’s proud of her Scottish soldier father, her bi-racial heritage. For many it’ll be uncomfortable she prides herself on that side of her family as industrious.

We’re then plunged into the present as Olivia Williams’ May reads to her prone mother in a hospital bed, showing her the family album. It’s a study in imperfect stress management lapped by grief. Susan Wooldridge’s Merry can only emit moans; Esther Smith’s Miriam emits boredom, stating when alone she doesn’t want to remember her grandmother like this.

The situation leads to May storming out and Miriam making a decision. It doesn’t end the way she thinks it might, as Meikle’s Mary runs on and a different dynamic replaces the vigil. Especially when Meikle recalls her Crimean hotel, her house in Jamacia. What?

Straight talking and patient care replace emoting, including upbraiding hygiene care assistant Déja J. Bowens’ Mamie. There’s a hypernatural cleaning scene reminiscent of Alexander Zeldin’s Love.

We’re back in Jamaica for another round of autobiography as Meikle relates how they love the English, with Williams’ traveller revived by rum and treating Smith’s fevered and vomiting young woman. Bowens gets scolded like a daughter as Seacole presides as the Doctoring angel. It’s the height of costumer supervisor Lucy Martin’s period gestures, but rapid dress-changes in this production are a tribute to all.

Llewella Gideon’s Duppy Mary has been silent before now. Mary’s doctoring mother, she exudes disapproval and little love, undermining Seacole’s identity. Not least in commending her to Wooldridge, Mary’s colonial patroness: entitlement itself.

Neatly we’re switched to 21st century America, where Meikle and Bowens are interrupted by incessantly chattering Smith as a lonely young mother with her shrill New Yorker accent, gradually realising she’s not wanted. It’s excoriating, painful, with sympathy extended to the exasperating, desperate young woman, excluded but needing support. Smith’s superb here, the play’s generous to each actor though Bowens, making a very assured debut has less to do.

The Crimea finally looms; it’s again interesting how Sibblies and director Nadia Latif increase stage business, give props supervisors Chris Marcus and Jonathan Hall a workout reaching its apotheosis in the final two scenes, as prone bodies are given succour including by passing nurse (Smith) of Nightingale’s team, as Bowens is rushed on and off, as in the second scene.

Well-to-do Smith’s ‘I’m with my husband, it’s so good we can war together’ surely counts as a classic line. Williams’ Nightingale enters with her lamp and final cutting remark. ‘I said we didn’t want you with us, I didn’t say we didn’t want you around us’ summarising Seacole’s use but never acceptance.

It’s a mock war-zone back in the 21st  century, where Meikle and Bowens cope with volunteers: Wooldridge, who needs the toilet, Smith enacting a seven-month pregnant woman, and her late-arriving mother Williams as Smith gives premature birth. Something spectacular happens though; this is where you unseal another level. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting nightmares here, as does Xana’s sound design, Kev McCurdy’s fight direction, Dominique Hamilton’s hair and makeup and Theo TJ Lowe’s movement, as darkness thickens, confused alarums turn noirish.

Gideon’s adamantine disapproval presides over a swirl of centuries and circumstance. It’s no simple swapping of heirs and originals, but a dream of the future by Seacole, or equally present dreams raking the past, as her later self recalls her Crimean hotel, her house in Jamacia: a past self more deeply interfused. Whose the dream is, how many dreamers turning it to nightmare, is a porous matter. Time-travelling here proclaims everything’s changed and stays just the same. There’s fine support from Wooldridge, and Bowens making their debut. Gideon, Williams, Smith and above all Meikle make perfect sense of our disorder. Do see this.