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FringeReview UK 2023

Low Down

This is a far more ambitious work than Sam Holcroft’s Rules For Living, and grounded in things she’s wished to write for a decade. It’s ingenious, necessary and occasionally at the end needs a tweak more to land. It’s still unmissable.

Writer Sam Holcroft, Director Jeremy Herrin, Set and Costume Designer Max Jones, Lighting Designer Azusa Ono, Composer and Sound Designer Nick Powell, Fight Director Jonathan Holby.

Casting Director Julia Horan CDG, Intimacy Director Clare Foster, Costume Supervisor Cait Canavan, Assistant Director Molly Stacey, Associate Designer Ruth Hall, Assistant Designers Anna Niamh Gorman and Alistair Turner, Casting Assistants Poppy Apter and Mary Clapp.

Till September 23rd


We’re all invited though we sense it’s a sham. A wedding with orders of service on every seat as Sam Holcroft’s A Mirror opens at the Almeida, directed by Jeremy Herrin.

Since 2011 when she and her husband travelled to North Korea and subsequently many other countries like Lebanon, Holcroft’s been troubled by censorship. What other writers undergo to even mount a mildly critical play, perhaps pay with their lives, is shot through this play. The programme features tributes to writers she knows, dedications and articles.

So it’s hardly a reveal about a minute in to be told the wedding’s a front, we’re an audience who’ve mostly been told we’re about to watch a dissident recension of events in an unspecified country we all live in, though based on those Holcroft’s visited. Anyone else is free to leave. There’s a couple more of these fourth-wall Pirandello-esque moments.

The glowering authority of Cultural chief Celik (Jonny Lee Miller), and new ex-army civil servant Mei (Tanya Reynolds) prepare to welcome ex-army mechanic and would-be dramatist Adem (Micheal Ward), after he’s submitted his play.

It’s so offensive, or shocking in its slice-of-life depiction, it’s gone straight to the top. Mei it turns out was Adem’s first reader, though she’s only been there the two weeks she truthfully tells Adem, and isn’t nearly as cynical as you might expect.

Reynolds builds Mei from stiff functionary to someone whose army service is in fact as much fissure as loyalist: whose knowledge of trauma and unsayable truths only Adem’s prepared to utter, prompts admiration of truth-telling, courage, a sudden release.

Holcroft’s message is clear: tap what people already know and drama, writing, even repeating is an incendiary act. No wonder censorship starts with the word and swiftly moves to controlling intimacy.

Celik wishes to be reasonable. As opposed to those who just like to destroy art, Celik declares he wants to nurture it. It’s easy to put Celik in a box marked traducer, but neither the dramaturgy or the character’s quite as simple as that.

Holcroft’s known for her CBT-like anatomy of a dysfunctional family in her 2015 Rules for Living at the National Theatre. So how she structures behavoural tics, character, as plot outcomes are always going to fascinate.

Miller takes all the opportunities Holcroft gives him to flesh out a small hinterland: Celik’s hesitant desire for Mei, hapless intimations of courtship. Miller at key points throughout lets a series of masks slip, always with a pulsing sense of threat in reserve: facets of Celik as corrupting sophist who wants, like most of his kind, to be loved by the people he neuters.

Beyond Pirandello, or even Orwell (there’s a O’Brien/Smith moment too when Celik offers Mei a banned Romeo and Juliet; he knows it, she doesn’t even know how it ends), there’s inevitable echoes of The Pillowman, especially in the opening with the writer hauled in for an unspecified crime. Save that Holcroft for 12 years really has been visiting these places.

More unusually, Nicholas Hodge’s Collaborators where an unwilling Bulgakov and Stalin play at swapping roles, prefigures the same intricate game between writer and culture czar. Just occasionally, involuntarily I imagined Miller’s words in Simon Russell Beale’s mouth as Stalin. Not performatively, but a twitch of phrase reminds us Holcroft, wholly individual, comes from a line of honourable dramatic interrogators.

There’s notable kinship too with Lucy Kirkwood’s Rapture, partly because writers are increasingly addressing the same territory. Holcroft though, is perhaps the first dramatist since Stoppard to travel and witness, even investigate this.

Holcroft’s structure though is more seductive than most and not so much a series of Russian dolls as dolls with trap doors. Ward as Adem too comes across not just simply as naïve, almost eloquently incredulous, but with his mimetic storytelling, photographic reproduction of scenes we’ve seen earlier when he’s given two further chances to come up with a new play, he suggests strong neurodiverse behaviour.

Adem literally cannot help being truthful. He’s a mirror but not only to what he writes. I’m not sure how far this takes him as an artist, as his character’s not truly fleshed out enough to suggest an imaginative life, but it’s a striking depiction of someone persecuted for being wired as they are. Ward’s performance gains stature as, stripped from early enthusiasm, he first grows bold with his dramaturgy, increasingly confident. Then defiant as things sour.

Celik brings in his pet ‘great’ writer dramatist Bax (Geoffrey Streatfeild) to help nurture Adem, with the help of Mei as they all take part on a grotesque workshop, starting with an appallingly funny patriotic piece. Streatfeild who doubles as a wedding singer is compelling as the jaded, slightly corrupted Bax whose first official work The Market Trader is his best and long behind him. And the confrontation with Adem is not merely enraging. It’s again a mirror.

With Adem’s third unacceptable piece – about the same battle the propaganda work hails from – different responses explode.  Sometimes with the drop of a saucer: Adem wasn’t the only one there.

Outfalls and realignments proceed to one climax, but though we might guess, we don’t. Holcroft’s twisted the denouement’s complexity with adroitness and a measure of even-handedness: though I’m not sure I wholly believe the newly-aligned characterisation in one instance.

Though Wedding Guest (Sara Houghton) is wholly underused, and a revival might cut down the number of actors, Senior Officer (Aaron Neil) suggests a different reading of authority to Miller’s Celik: more traditional one might say.

Throughout we’re given a single cello pulse of composer and sound designer Nick Powell’s music as Miriam Wakeling performs – compellingly – to the side of the stage. You’d think Bach but it morphs creatively from that. Max Jones has kept stage and costumes minimal, though there’s neat faux-curtain moments, and Azusa Ono’s lighting tells us where we are: occasionally intimate, mostly office glare, occasionally almost arc-lit interrogation. Mentioning other creatives might function as spoilers.

This is more ambitious than Rules For Living, and grounded in things Holcroft’s wished to write for a decade. It’s ingenious, necessary and occasionally at the end needs a tweak more to land. Though its two-hour straight-through is wholly compelling. It’s still unmissable.