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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Director Paul Miller. Designer Simon Daw, Lighting Designer Mark Doubleday, Sound Designer & Composer. Elizabeth Purnell. Casting Consultant. Vicky Richardson CDG.

Movement & Intimacy Director. Christina Fulcher, Company Stage Manager Jenny Skivens, Costume Supervisor. Sarah Frances. Deputy Stage Manager. Julia Crammer. Casting Co-ordinator Sarah Murray

Production Manager Lisa Hood, DSM Julia Crammer, ASM Jamie Craker, Production LX Chris McDonnell, Scenic Art Anita Gander, Seda Sokmen, Emma Turner

Production Photographer The Other Richard

Till July 23rd  


It’s not just gender-swerving but role-swerving that threatens sexual and social order in Paul Miller’s production of this 1724 Marivaux play. Surprises light up even the last fade.

It’s right Miller’s final season as Artistic Director at the Orange Tree includes a translation of Martin Crimp, who started there. And his version of The False Servant is the second Marivaux we’ve seen here in five years. Crimp’s gleaming translation – concentrated, svelte, fleet, steely –  is different in temper to Marivaux’ best-known play.

That masterpiece The Lottery of Love suggested he’s the greatest comic French dramatist after Moliere; many think him even finer. The False Servant – a more acerbic play – proves its point. Miller though doesn’t entirely buy into every chilly nugget of Crimp’s translation – songs are cut too – and reveals Marivaux’ romance streak: it’s as filigree pink as the rococo age it comes from, but glowing faintly; the final image is touching.

Not that you’d guess that with Simon Daw’s elegant minimalist design: yellow-grey-patterned parquée floor, a metal plant (steel magnolia?) owing something to Tamara de Lempicka and Art Deco, and a Hepworthian crouch of  a figure writhing back in a Deco way. A subtle myriad-light display above arcs a brittle canopy, lit by Mark Doubleday. Sound designer and composer Elizabeth Purnell – a welcome frequent one for this venue – points her own light irony rather than delicious quotes. It’s 1930s neo-classical with a shot of emigré vodka.

Masterless servant Will Brown with a slouch military cap and later the Countess’ gold/brown midi-skirts and sharp grey suits (the False Servant herself, but then that’s four of them) all speak a post-war sartorial slouch and strut. It could be 1930s but there’s that cap.

Uzair Bhatt‘s cheery Frontin is a plot-point role to start the unravelling: servant to The Chevalier, his sotto voce secret to wandering friend Trivelin (Brown) who – taken on by the Chevalier who dispatches Frontin back to Paris – betrays it to Arlequin (Silas Wyatt-Barke) who’s servant to Alpha-shit Lelio. It sets up a chain reaction of hush-money.

More it renders Lizzy Watts’ Chevalier vulnerable, both in class and gender to Brown’s, even Wyatt-Barke’s more puppy-dog advances. It’s altogether riskier than the later Lottery which frames a similar device without gender-swaps. Brown and Watts dance round Brown’s braggadocio ‘sweetheart’ and Watts’ sinewy body-swerve. Only to be upstaged by hapless Arlequin snatching a kiss after all, and in his infatuation key to betraying everything.

There’s no doubt too that Brown’s Trivelin has the most fun, even if Lelio threatens him (this bit doesn’t quite work; fear of our betters vanished by mid-20th century). Brown’s playing the insolent with audience – who whoop it up – make this up-close in-the-round production intimate, confiding, complicit; punctuated with roars of laughter. Watts joins in: she’ll ask you to hold her coat whilst fighting a duel.

A rich woman, the Chevalier pretends to be a woman servant (to the servants) and dressed as a man is attempting to seduce a Countess (Phoebe Pryce) to prevent her from marrying leering lothario Lelio  – uproarious rotter Julian Moore-Cook, who’s intent on prising wealth from an heiress then dispatching her into the country. He needs shot of the Countess after entering into a unwise contract. Because he’s now set his sights on the fabulously wealthy heiress whom he’s remotely engaged to but never met. Who just happens to be that Chevalier, who’d decided to check up on her intended.  And whom Lelio thinks he’s befriended, to seduce the Countess to break that contract.

Moore-Cook who impressed in While the Sun Shines, curdles that open blast of warmth to naked sociopath. His Lelio burnishes greed with misogyny. Whilst true the play’s fixation on money is more naked than Lottery, it’s truer that men relish it; for the women it’s no end at all. Yes they’re rich but then so’s Lelio. And the Chevalier aims to rescue the Countess from fleecing and discarding (the Countess concerned merely with losing a fortune to Lelio), for no gain but a ring she knows what to do with.

Watts shows how the Chevalier – she’s never named for herself – enjoys gendering her performance. With Brown she’s a playful servant, doing her mysterious mistress’ business, leery of his offer. It’s dangerous, she’s agile. With Arlequin she’s more frankly pitying. In spats with Lelio, she’s either performatively confiding as handsome fellow-seducer, or prepared to take this up to a duel. We  see a glint far harder in her performing gender than Viola over a century earlier. It extends though to Chevalier’s determined seduction – for her own good reasons – of said Countess.

Pryce shows herself independent as only a rich woman could. But unlike Watts’ character, hers is circumscribed: Pryce shows how someone of judgement and  passion, articulate in everything but agency – is tethered. Admittedly it’s a wad of her money tied up in a contract. But only someone performing as a man can bend the action to her desires.

The Countess might feel she’s not born to woo, but the Chevalier for her own purposes pushes her to accept the proposal: she has a plan. Performatively way out of gender roles – bending Marivaux/Crimp to their tensile utmost – Watts and Pryce play with an intensity that’s anything but false. Perhaps not just for Pryce.

Otherwise that’s the trouble, which Miller addresses. The cruelty of saving the Countess from herself is addressed by the Chevalier in the closing lines (the two songs are cut). And with Lelio crying on the floor scrabbling up what he’s lost in the three-way shoot-out there’s a heart-warming surprise. It’s not in Crimp but it’s what makes this production special.It’s wholly fitting, a champagne send-off to Miller’s outstanding eight years.