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FringeReview UK 2023

Low Down

Still the most sheerly thrilling yet intimate piece MacDowall has written, though all three pieces amplify that. A miniature classic of snatched meaning its staging too flashes by with shocking brevity. In all it lasts just 90 minutes. Catch it.

Co-directed by Vicky Featherstone and Sam Pritchard, Designer Merte Hensel, lit by Elliott Griggs, Video Deisnger Lewis den Hertog, Sound Artist and Composer Design Melanie Wilson. Stage Managers Charlotte Padgham & David Palmer, Sound Operator Florence Hand

Till June 17th.


Alistair McDowall’s phenomenal all of it was staged at the Royal Court Downstairs as a standalone for a week in February 2020. Returning to the same space, with the same performer Kate O’Flynn, and co-directed with clean-to-the-bone intimacy by Vicky Featherstone and Sam Pritchard, it’s preceded  by two shorts: Northleigh, 1940 and In Stereo.

All performed by Flynn, they explore states that grow spectral. Northleigh, 1940 features a woman trapped in a house in an air-raid, discovering her father in his Morrison shelter – simply an indoor shelter under the table. In Stereo finds another woman, perhaps in the 1970s, in the same space. all of it with all the trappings stripped to a black box, is a birth-to-death tunnel of words.

The last is lit with downward smoke effects in a column of fragile visibility by Elliott Griggs; there’s a sense we’re seeing one of those mythic auras McDowall edges his work with. It’s designed by Merte Hensel as a box covered for the first two plays by a fern-like greenish wallpaper, with a bed and in the second a 1970s chair and TV. That’s where Video Designer Lewis den Hertog comes in with his doubles, and sound artist and composer Melanie Wilson starts those effects one associates with McDowall, with the hum of living just too far off. The last piece is set in a black box.

The text is titled Three Poems. The language – partly informed by reading John Ashbery and William Carlos Williams – is pitched in a dizzying variety of simultaneous voices, poetic tropes, ironic prose. The different pressures allow even the same character to startle into another gear.


Northleigh, 1940

O’Flynn in a 1940s dress opens with hyper-lyrical language (the text here laid out in stanzas) in the first person, then eventually moves to third-person prose narration, as if suddenly beside herself (something we’ll return to). It soon becomes clear she’s caring for her father and treats of her unsympathetic mother’s death. Regarding death: ”There was no poetry in it” and the protagonist returns to life as fiction, “strewn paperbacks” and even a riposte to her father’s suggestion she right stories. She did but “they all sound like me.” The end, where O’Flynn takes on the voices of father and daughter as they lie side by side waiting for bombs to possibly miss them, is haunting.


In Stereo.

The same house perhaps, the 1970s a mother moves in (different, but not-so different maxi dress) and as O’Flynn is initially silent, a recorded voice narrates, as the woman tries scrubbing off a red-brown stain she finds widens and widens “like a vagina” which becomes perhaps an opening to a beyond – except we see it in den Hertog’s TV set as the woman hears herself talking, and McDowell finds a richly comic voice as she ends staying in the same bed as her Doppleganger and hears more sounds: ”and I thought good I’ve gone to sleep” always referring to the other as “I”, and as she hears this expanding noise “Is that keeping you awake too?” ”And I turned to look at myself and I said yes.” These voices multiply with that expanding patch and the end’s extraordinary, moving out of time. It’s perhaps the most typically McDowell-like, that is a mix of the super-real, spectral and sci-fantasy-tinged.


all of it

This leaves the original piece in context, but still somehow separate – the staging’s different, and the work is – almost – naturalist treated in any mode but.

Imagine Not I crossed with Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs. O’Flynn’s virtuosic 45-minute birth-to-death monologue hurtles with the snapped-off lyricism you often see in McDowall, and here his all of it too owns a small corona of spookiness, just a tincture from the writer of Pomona, X, and subsequently The Glow.

O’Flynn in a matte-effect black suit, perched on a high stool with just a glass of water nearby, is both movingly gawkish and stoically bleak at either end of her speed-read on a life. After the “rushing/rushing” of birth, where O’Flynn’s linguistic virtuosity pitches to the Beckettian, we’re slowed only slightly to the sweet banality we’ve all been through: childhood, toilet training, packed lunches to school, playground friends and lack of them, a native asperity, later the size of other girls’ breasts; being driven up to uni by parents. McDowall and O’Flynn make it utterly compelling. It’d be difficult not to be riveted as half-decades flash by.

O’Flynn’s character is movingly realized. Her muted arc of childhood is dwelt on by McDowall: discovery of language with several litanic repeats. There’s a younger brother, sex (there’s a funny section on orgasm as word and deed, echoed much later), death “everyone dies” the opposite pole of sex set up from the start is the more profound in its ordinariness. The bright northern girl who just keeps slightly underachieving, coping with early and tragic deaths, the film-making husband never cutting it, disappointment, her own daughter “a baby… coming out of me” in capitalised astonishment. In  a blink – the narrative like Lungs accelerates at least for a while – driving that baby up to uni … her daughter’s daughter; a late happiness; then all those subtractions.

There’s a striking parallel with Michael Tippet’s 1977 Symphony No 4 ‘a birth-to-death piece’ which starts with rasps of breathing over the orchestra, ending the same way. It’s tempting and right to involve a palindromic sense of the way language seems the same inarticulated smear at either end.

McDowall’s piece is in itself constructed as an exploration of language as identity and ritual – repeating it gives you an evanescent solidity. And litanising the same word over and over as this work does lends the rituals of life McDowall probes with his “Everyone dies” speeded up into “everyonedies” in a velocity of subsong.

O’Flynn extended her range in this piece and has now tripled her impact. Often given bright articulate roles, for instance magnificently in Anatomy of a Suicide in 2017, and 2019’s The End of History, this miniature epic of Everywoman (in particular) finds her profoundly moving as a kind of tabula rasa, a face whose identity is a guessed blur.

The latter two pieces in particular are unexpectedly funny, and the audience often roar. At the end though there’s a standing ovation. This is still the most sheerly thrilling yet intimate piece MacDowall has written, though all three pieces amplify that. A miniature classic of snatched meaning its staging too flashes by with shocking brevity. In all it lasts just 90 minutes. Catch it.