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FringeReview UK 2023

Low Down

Charlie Dupré’s fast-paced, dazzlingly original Compositor E cuts into how the anonymous assert fingerprints: brilliant, unsettling, absorbing. McCarthy and the Omnibus team deserve huge credit for a work that might play to a larger space.

Written by Charlie Dupré, Directed by Marie McCarthy, Associate Director Chris Yarnell, Designer Sophie Pardon, Lighting Designer and Videographer Rachel Sampley, Sound Designer Adam P McCready, Dramaturg Sam Pont, Stage Manager Meghan Bartual Smyth, Assistant Directors Joanna Woznicka, Katherine Henry, Yijin Li, Lila Vitos.

Till October 7th


Early September 1623. There’s an important book to set up in double columns in less than three months’ time; apprentices aren’t lasting a week. Charlie Dupré’s fast-paced, dazzlingly original Compositor E based round the mistakes, decisions and skills of the real compositors of the First Folio is directed by Marie McCarthy, Artistic Director of Omnibus Theatre Clapham where this work premieres.

One supreme advantage of writer-performers is mastery of dialogue and pace. With this Bruntwood-longlisted work, it’s in evidence here from the get-go, with a spray of stage directions usually needed (not always the case). Action’s busy, then concludes in ecstatic meditation, driven with riveting pace by McCarthy.

Dupré’s known for The Stories of Shakey P, Macblair and its sequel Boris Rex, at Edinburgh/Brighton Fringes. This is his in-house London debut, drawing on Dupré’s poles of politics and Shakey, “Shagspeare”

It’s what Isaac Jaggard (Kaffe Keating), son of the dying printer-owner, tells new 17-year-old apprentice John Leason (Tré Medley) about this seven-year-dead author with posthumous friends in high places. That’s when Isaac notices him, after old-hand, chief compositor Richard Bardolph (David Monteith) tells John how long apprentices last.

No wonder. Many of this writer’s manuscripts are transcribed by poet-copyist Ralph Crane. Only Richard, derivative poet “around since the tenth century” Isaac claims, can read him.

Medley makes an appealing, increasingly confident John Leason (the name Dupré’s given to the real Compositor E, likely a fast-learning apprentice).

Monteith’s authoritative, rackety, cough-racking Richard connives and confides as he urinates into a bucket (neat stage management here), or vomits into another.

Keating’s lean, hungry son Isaac pads about, riveting attention. He’s waiting to inherit: to pounce. More worried than dangerous; he could lose everything.

Interaction’s beautifully calibrated. In 80 minutes we’ve entered a world with characters who burst from it. Isaac’s hampered: his gloved hand’s an injury from his father meaning he can’t set type like the others. Keating’s Isaac defers to Monteith’s Richard but chides too (all that bog-roll), until he doesn’t need him – or so he thinks. Dupré’s dialogue is spiced with insults, modern and arcane, pointed and fast-moving; till it’s suddenly a different language.

Isaac’s MO is summarised in a repeat litany: “Look, it just goes through your eyes and out through your fingers, OK?/Don’t try to understand everything./We haven’t got time.” Isaac’s dismissive of John till he realises his talents; then disturbed, pleading, bargaining with him. John shifts in confidence developing “strategy” – a word learned off Isaac – and plays both, exploring a world after his uncle’s rejected him by hurling him here in the Barbican. But John has limits. He can walk too.

The swirl of a print-shop features two things: quite stunning lighting and videography by Rachel Sampley, firing letters and silhouettes of birds and ampersands, against the flakily-distressed wall and splashed stage-floor of the Omnibus set designed by Sophie Pardon. Pardon’s included lectern-like desks for compositing, and an authentic-looking press. Adam P McCready’s sound is evanescent, never intrudes: it vanishes into walls, like the sound of presses it invokes

The other’s a rotation of three Kids drawn from a female ensemble of 16, often writer/performers just down from Edinburgh Fringe. On this occasion Sian-Leigh Moore, Hannah-Leigh Moriarty, Olivia McLeod dart about with rosters, haul press and equipment on and off. They’re chided (McLeod), handle sheet-corners, occasionally speak or bring news (Moriarty), hunker round three ink vats. Moore stares at Medley as they crouch by one. Associations are obvious but never laboured. Faces smeared with ink, they perform a perpetual ballet.

After struggling with Lear’s storm speech, it turns out John can read Crane too. That’s when ailing Richard vomits up ink fumes. They’re in Quire M, Macbeth. Isaac’s incredulous then impressed. “There’s power in that fingerprint of yours. Make sure to use it wisely.” Crane’s indecipherable scrawl matches John’s dead mother’s.

How she died, as we learn informs how swiftly-brilliant compositor John questions words patron James I (portrait glowering down on them all), would approve. John turns on Isaac, who’s been extolling him: “Oh – that’s no eyeslip, that one./I did that on purpose./My fingerprint!/Using it wisely, just like y’told me to.”

John finds it’s not Crane’s transcriptions, but decisions made about what was (maybe) altered, that transports him. “Wayward” is derogatory. “Weird” is much better. Now rival to Richard, he cannily plays one off against the other. Richard’s old friends with the dying owner; and initially doesn’t help John by persuading him to visit offstage, where John’s beaten. There’s a touch of Speed-the-Plough about all this, but there can’t be a simple winner here.

A fast-moving, absorbing play, there’s little time to register the backstory impelling John, his obsession with “Weird”, indeed more derogatory language he quotes contemptuously, like “rump-fed ronyon”; which he doesn’t however propose to replace. We know Macbeth was almost certainly cut and augmented by Middleton around 1621, working on a manuscript submitted to the Folio editors.

Lightning-fast as we know Compositor E was at learning, John’s obsession and manipulation (admittedly following Richard) aren’t quite earned. He’s 17 too. We need another few minutes, silent stage-direction if necessary – this second version being now published – to land his motivation.

With the resolution John, augmented by the Kids’ ballet (and exhortations) embarks on a spellbinding paean to the power of printers, their DNA in crafting – even creating – a book for all time. I’m not entirely sure of this brilliant indulgence either, a charm John’s mother never lived to wind up. Medley is hugely confident here though, and carries it, as do the consummate Keating and Monteith.

There’s intricate plays to write around the Folio: the omission of Pericles, Cardenio, The Two Noble Kinsmen, with collaborative authors like Fletcher claiming them and not Henry VIII.

Compositor E though cuts into how the anonymous assert fingerprints: brilliant, unsettling, absorbing. McCarthy and the Omnibus team deserve huge credit for a work that might play to a larger space, notwithstanding the slight awkwardness of casting those Kids.

It’s not difficult to find off Clapham Common tube. Do try and see it.