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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Directed by Stella Powell-Jones, Designer Ceci Calf, Costume Designer Emily Stuart, Lighting Designer Ali Hunter, Composer and Sound Designer Roly Botha, Movement Director and Associate Director Elliot Pritchard.

Assistant Set Designer Caitlin Mawhinny, Associate Costume Designer Clara Tenfield, Assistant Sound Designer Anja Urban, Intimacy Co-ordinator Hannah Rose Goalstone, Transgender Consultant Aitch Wylie.

Production Manager Lucy Mewis-McKerrow, Stage Manager Daisy Francis-Bryden, ASM Filipa Carolino, Production Carpenter Tom Baum, Production Technician Ebbe Rodtborg, Production Electrician Edward Callow, Scenic Artists Seda Sokmen & Tabitha Streater.

Production & Rehearsal Photographer Steve Gregson, Artwork Photographer Ste Murray, Programme Designer Ciaran Walsh, PR David Burns, Associate Producer Crawford Harris.

Till May 28th


Oh to live eighty years an Elizabethan-born youth, wake a duchess in 1660 and still be only a thirty-six-year-old woman by 1927.

Free from money worries too, if with frilly titles and a house – and bewildering retired staff. Because everyone else ages but you. There’s the rub Virginia Woolf won’t dwell on and dramatist Sarah Ruhl can’t alter.

It took from 1998 to 2010 for twice-times Pulitzer and Tony finalist Ruhl to land her adaptation of Woolf’s 1928 Orlando on Off-Broadway. It’s caught on; its cast of (usually) five is ideal for Jermyn Street Theatre’s Temptation Season.

This once-popular classic of gender fluidity took a 1992 film – itself fought for – to reboot. So do you bring Sally Potter’s dazzle and sensuality or opt for dream-like states? Though productions can turn more or less sumptuous heels, Ruhl opts for the latter and that’s how Stella Powell-Jones’ direction and Ceci Calf’s cardboard-and-paste design play it.

There’s plenty of scope for costume designer Emily Stuart though: Taylor McClaine’s Orlando is dressed and changed in a splash of oranges and reds, tucked, boned, splayed for the right century.

Calf creates a homely country-house feel to her dream-shaded backdrop, lit steadily by Ali Hunter with only one blackout. Dreams aren’t stagey, they melt. There’s a projected centre facilitating exits and comic entrances. It evokes Orlando’s aspiring plays, but Ruhl’s deleted that episode in a work of ninety minutes. Note – there’s now an interval.

You’d not credit McClaine’s making their stage debut – in a title role too. They give a transfixing and – importantly here – enchanting performance. Breathless with naiveite to begin, as Orlando finds himself the object of an ageing queen’s calf-adoring last romance, beginning a 400 years’ odyssey through time (Ruhl says 500), ageing five years a century.

McClaine’s onstage throughout. Ruhl’s storytelling mode heightens artifice: drama’s kept at bay to keep Woolf’s gossamer joy afloat. Movement director (and associate director) Elliot Pritchard invites fluidity where there could be bustle and bunching. There’s nothing hurried or dramatically jagged; all’s fleet and swerve.

This Orlando’s not so much a dance but masque to the music of time, kept airborne; touched in with Bach and Pachelbel later.

Tigger Blaize’s characters are both facilitator and impediment, inhabited with panache, swathed in orange/white – or black in mourning for their life. Blaize revels mordantly in these parts. A querulous, imperiously fragile Queen Elizabeth, he’s also crotchety Romanian Duchess who so importunes Orlando the youth flees to Constantinople for a fated life of debauchery.

And on his return Duchess reveals himself a roué Duke, equally time-expired, equally boring to Orlando. ‘I once shot an elk in Sweden’ is less enthralling than ‘I carried a watermelon’ – we’re warned even vegetables were different in Orlando’s youth. But by 1660 there’s pineapples.

Between Blaizes there’s Skye Hallam’s poised, sultry Sasha; arguably her single Russian princess role under-uses her in this hard-working cast. It’d be good to see her in chorus roles, but there’s mystery to keep. Hallam’s scenes with McClaine are a winning marriage of experience over innocence, whirling in McClaine’s erotic excitement, jealousies against the axis of Hallam’s sexual assurance; thick-voiced adherence to codes beyond Orlando.

That axis shifts after swoops on the Great Frost, a set-piece allowing McClaine to flourish a paragraph of birds frozen mid-air, shepherds ditto, dolphins fathoms down. So prow extenders appear from the central promontory (as they do with the Constantinople trips) as Hallam dallies with Stanton Wright’s sailor (knocked down by Orlando) then – you’ll guess  the rest.

Wright enjoys galant and salty roles: that Russian, the sea captain transporting newly-gendered Orlando to England, mansplaining St Paul’s and Westminster. And in Victorian times Orlando’s soul-mate (rescuing her from a busted ankle, so Willoughby) needs no intro to gender fluidity or the way they think both genders. It’s a secret rapture. Wright’s playful machismo dissolves in Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, nodding to the gay husband of Woolf’s inspiration Vita Sackville-West. But can he live forever too?

Rosalind Lailey’s patrician-voiced narratives intercut with others, or as plain-speaking maid to Orlando, refusing to remove her wedding wing for an instant. Inhabiting no major role, Lailey revels in a different pitch of characters.

Has Orlando fallen for McClaine? Their performance is playfully authoritative, rapturous, never deeply troubled, airborne as the production. There’s wit, never archness, light irony not cynicism. Transition apparates at the interval. After months of debauchery Orlando goes to bed with a gypsy, sleeps seven days, wakes translated.

Woolf and Ruhl won’t load this moment with chrysalis-like effort or pain; it happens. A challenge for Ruhl and any production is to keep dream-like distance yet draw us in. Three American productions on YouTube try simplicity; Off-Broadway invoked Potter and sumptuary laws, masking some narrative baldness.

Some won’t find this dramatic enough. Powell-Jones and cast opt for dream and gaiety, true to Woof and Ruhl. They’re exemplary in this space, with an aesthetic true to that poem of Orlando’s it takes 500 years to write. Only in ‘the present moment’, Woolf hints, can Orlando express themselves as writers after department-store bustles, as tearaway driver of a horseless carriage. Composer and sound designer Roly Botha deserves a shout for the thread of noises-off.

Behind the small cast there’s a big production team. Intimacy Co-ordinator Hannah Rose Goalstone facilitates full-on swooping kisses and a clinch. Transgender consultant Aitch Wylie ensures a probing delicacy, a production asking questions of us.

Jermyn Street’s producing more exquisite LGBTQ drama than anyone else just now, as Orlando follows on The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein.

It’s timely too, challenging transphobia, myths around cancel culture. Watch out for Howard Brenton’s premiere Cancelling Socrates, and there’s a new Peter Gill. Such distinction speaks volumes and seats.

For those who want more dramatic tension, Ruhl doesn’t embed it though some big-cast productions (‘3 to 15’ is possible) might convince you Ruhl’s adaptation is weightier than it is. That can paradoxically work against its real heft. Ruhl’s superb skim-through can sag though, especially in riffling 17th-19th centuries; that pace might be tweaked here.

A gem of a production though, with a cast we’ll see elsewhere, and McClaine a soaring talent to watch. And… JST are just getting into a full season including four new plays, four new dramatists this summer.