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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Directed by Lucy Bailey (Assistant Director/Dramaturg Clemmie Reynolds), Designer Joanne Parker.

Composer Orlando Gough’s haunted score is played on accordions by Sophie Crawford, Hannah James, Aine McLoughlin, Karen Street (Music Director), Lona Suomalainen.

Choreographer/Movement Director Georgina Lamb and Company Manager, Caroline Hughes supervises costumes made by a team of six.  Fight Director Renny Krupinski.

Head of Voice Tess Dignan. Deputy Text Associate Christine Schmidle.

Head of Props Emma Hughes, Head of Wigs and Make-Up Pam Humpage. Casting Becky Paris, Production Manager Wills, Stage Manager Walker, Producers Ellie James, Tamsin Mehta.

Till October 23rd


Here’s a Much Ado that thinks it’s As You Like it. It works.

Lucy Bailey’s  reading has the amplitude, good humour and garden party feel of its Festal play successor. With assistant director/dramaturg Clemmie Reynolds Bailey draws out – occasionally to the point of languor – painful truths and pleasurable fictions. They envelop this capsule of peace in the vacuum of war. It’s a provisional release. We’re in northern Italy, April 1945.

A patient, detailed reading that despite all the whoops of laughter it elicits, wouldn’t look out of place indoors – at the Wanamaker, the RSC.  Like Twelfth Night last year, it breathes in a knockabout air; but exhales poinards.

Joanne Parker’s set comes into its own on a beating sun in early May. The party feel reaches out too. Ivy climbs up the Globe’s façade, lawn swoops out in a pincer movement through the groundlings, there’s wide steps down and a few hedges upstage for overhearing. Garden tables and chairs, a wheelbarrow full of strategy, it’s all you need.

Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film is faintly invoked, but this is different; less topiary, more topic. Though almost as English. For a start there’s an accordion quintet led by Karen Street: occasionally the whole cast play, heightening the celebratory good humour Bailey and her company insist outlasts even war.

It heralds the triumphant return of the anti-Fascist Italian army. Orlando Gough’s weaving of wartime Italian hits (with chorus) alternates with quoting a few bars, often repeated, from the opening of George Butterworth’s Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad. Which evokes April. It’s a dark undertow, haunting with melancholy and wartime premonition, Butterworth himself a casualty.

This isn’t the first production to use wartime Italy. In 1985 an ingenious production at the (then) Gardiner Centre Sussex University set Much Ado About Nothing in its original Messina, Sicily, in July 1943. The troops are American Italians, with links to locals and Mafia, just then released.

Here, transplanted, the men change to sharp suits and by the end with women swathed in black you’d be forgiven for thinking we’ve moved to La Dolce Vita. Thankfully it’s more original. With Bocaccio-style masks and conga dancing, a sumptuary of dresses (Beatrice’s a turquoise broken out of the 1930s, Hero’s darkly witty scarlet), even hats (useful to Benedick), costume supervisor Caroline Hughes and her team anchor this production in time. There’s none of the fantastical: it’s a brilliant sartorial sobriety.

That makes sense. It’s a women’s household these men jog up to.  They’re welcoming but guarded, the frisson of not being able to refuse erupting in false accusations and challenges. Gender as well as age shrivels their status for dangerous moments, disarmed by Don Pedro. It’s a reminder how perilous this female oasis is. Masculinity bonded in partisan armies swirls round: to break out of it as Benedick does is revolutionary. Even in 1945, Catholic Italy’s as obsessed with the cattle of untainted virginity as with codes of braggadocio.

Katy Stephens’ gender-reversed Leonata exudes dignified warmth, anger over Hero, and at one point sings. It’s an authoritative performance. Like many here every word is heard in a tricky acoustic. There’s a frisson between her and Don Pedro, taking the hint Benedick lays down at the end. Joanne Haworth’s equally gender-reversed Antonia wears her elder mantle with a guest’s freedom; Rachel Hannah Clarke’s buoyant Margaret brings zing to her earthy role.

Ferdy Roberts’ gravelly, avuncular Don Pedro contrasts with Olivier Huband’s ‘plain villain’ Don John, invested here with sad deliberation. He’s no Iago, but someone savouring malice and not quite sure what to do with it. Huband stamps him with a vestigial humanity. Philip Cumbus’s Boracio (for Ciaran O’Brien) is virtually off-page, lively, almost winning in his nasty mission. And makes a gag with his script. Peter Bourke’s mix of Baldric and Brighton Spiv Conrade belies his ‘gentleman’ assertion. His Friar’s equally strong: about as vivid as a quasi-Anglican priest can be in Italy.

Lucy Phelps’ Beatrice though stands apart. She takes time to disdain: no spitfire tirades, but elegant, unhurried, provocative. There’s reserves of wit struck off Ralph Davis’ Benedick, a role where he normally comes a good second. In this production his last words are taken by Beatrice but Davis steals comic fire in his bewilderment that Beatrice loves him. His pause before ‘There’s a double meaning in that’ is exquisite.

It’s a farcical pre-echo of men believing their own sex as he trundles about garbed as a gardener (swiping hat and wheelbarrow), or crouching within inches of his apparently oblivious friends. Such farce is almost outdone by Phelps’ Beatrice, equally sent slithering about to eavesdrop on people who step over Beatrice as if she doesn’t exist. It’s  normally a set-piece. But Faydeau and Cooney gained admittance here and the scene lasts twenty minutes.

Bailey doesn’t hurry the moment of Hero’s humiliation either; it’s as deliberate as the preceding privet scenes; the one caveat is that everything’s too deliberate.

The electrifying climax of Act IV/1 though is where this comedy overleaps greater ones with a mutually astonished admission of love, and Beatrice’s ‘Kill Claudio’ moment. There’s nothing outside Romeo and Juliet to compare with this tragic intensity, and the power of this production is the way Phelps, weeping with fury at Hero’s slander is comforted by Davis, who broods on the same. It’s again unhurried, but here it tells: stripping Phelps and Davis to bare feeling, and overwhelming. Here Beatrice’s command is almost muffled after a clinch but clear enough; the audience hush, even shock, shows it registers.

When Phelps runs off weeping at the end, it’s clear she actually dreads Claudio’s death, despite herself. Hero will be bereft, Benedick marked. War’s invaded, and it’ll end in tragedy. It’s the power of this production that everything leads to this.

Nadi Kemp-Sayfi’s Hero and Patrick Osborne’s Claudio are both as strong as their roles permit. Their union might be the plot’s mainspring but they’re also Gavin and Stacey; a stronger couple always steal the show. Nevertheless, Kemp-Sayfi’s allowed more vivacity, spirit, time to grow into outrage and playfulness by turns.

Osborne’s role is here allowed redemption: partly by camping out all night in vigil over a black-lined grave in the grass. He’s also less brattish, more thoughtful – enough to make his confirmation of Benedick’s challenge believable. However he’s been duped and however little he yet values women, he’s not the cipher he can be.

At least five in this cast just finished at the Wanamaker. The Globe’s actors are almost turning into a repertory company. George Fouracres’ Dogberry follows on from his Hamlet and makes a beautifully modulated ass of himself. Indeed Osborne, Davis, Howarth (as Verges) and Huband luxuriate in malapropisms. Bailey’s constables – all in Carabinieri  flummery – strike off each clear twittery by turns so we savour it.

Bailey’s production is ideal for those unfamiliar with this play. It’s otherwise the most convincing Much Ado for years, only a little maddening with pace.  First of the season, with its vernal defiance of weather, it’s like a polite earnest of Beltane.