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FringeReview UK 2023

Low Down

Directed by Philip Wilson, Set and Costume Designed by Isabell van Braeckel, Lighting Design Catja Hamilton, Composer and Sound Designer Harry Blake, Associate Set and Costume Designer Lucy Fowler, Stage Manager Amos Clarke

Production Manager Lucy Mewis-McKerrow, Production Carpenter Adam Smith, Production Technician Tom McCreadie.

Programme Designer Ciaran Walsh for Ciwa Design.Production & Rehearsal Photographer Steve Gregson, PR David Burns

Till March 4th


A dinner party that lasts six years – or at least from the opulent – and opalescent – mirrored dining scene from 1874 to Rouen Station in 1880 it seems like it.

Historian Orlando Figes couldn’t quite let go of Gustave Flaubert and his companions from his book The Europeans: so his debut play The Oyster Problem at Jermyn Street Theatre directed by Philip Wilson scoops every delicious scrap of evidence, letter and anecdote around Flaubert’s relationship with fellow-writers George Sand, Emile Zola, Ivan Turgenev and his artist niece Caroline Commanville, to throw away the calcified shells of history.

That could so easily not work. It’s not just to the quality of anecdote and selection that it does. Figes can’t conjure incitement-points and crises in classic dramaturgical fashion, they’re simply not Flaubert’s lifestyle: but Figes’ five acts really do traverse them, sotte voce, with quiet devastation.

Jermyn Street reverently twitted Flaubert and his most famous novel, Madam Bovary only recently, with John Nicholson’s The Massive Tragedy of Madam Bovary! Respectfully and movingly nudging it towards The Thirty-Nine Steps territory.

Now Figes’ more serious, still playful drama asks, what to do when the oysters stop? In a shadowy sense, Flaubert’s life with its lack of compromise echoes the self-destructiveness of his famous heroine. His friends though make all the difference, including discussing what must be done for writers to survive.

And it’s Flaubert’s lifestyle – but even more his sense of honour towards his niece and hapless husband – that brings him to the brink of ruin. The opening chorus of the friends echoes all through the consequences: “The cork has been drawn, so the wine must be drunk!” gets repeated like a roundelay.

Isabell van Braeckel’s design and costumes offer a sumptuary of dining table cloths, candles and those mirrored panels as Flaubert (Bob Barrett) entertains first thrusting young Naturalist Emile Zola (Peter Hannath) – who has a condition demanding he urinate urgently, before the maid (Rosalind Lailey’s first brief role as Madeleine) has time to fetch a chamber pot.   

Zola’s pragmatic, socialist, carelessly prolific, and in Hannath’s shaft of downright energy both delighted by being prosecuted for immortality (as Flaubert was) but realist enough to know when too many copies of his Nana are seized. Zola’s brio is a necessary foil for older heads to rub against.

Flaubert’s anchor is George Sand (Norma Atallah’s first role) with Atallah humanising the raucously sexual and sexist first scene – and a counter to males rampant with her own tales. A warm poise between tenderness and blunt common-sense as well as a warning to male assumptions, Atallah carries the older Sand regally towards Sand’s function of earthy sibyl and closest perhaps of all Flaubert’s friends (their correspondence is vast).  Ivan Turgenev (Giles Taylor like Hannath looks the part too) is on the face of it the rueful wise counsellor of a man only three years his junior, played with exquisite ruefulness by Taylor.

Barrett, lighter-voiced than I imagined Flaubert to be (so much for assumptions) navigates the more volatile quicksilver of Flaubert, from tenderness to sudden rage when something contrary to his wishes emerges, to palls of self-flagellation and regret – and sudden unlooked-for cheer. Here you can see radiate out from the encrusted misanthrope of fame the radiance and inner warmth that made such friends as these love him. Barrett beautifully modulates petulance and pride with rapt gratitude.

He’ll need it. Van Braeckel’s set reverses those mirrors, strips sumptuary away and we’re first in Flaubert’s attic room in 1875, then in his modest palette-blanched Croisset farmhouse for the last three acts of 1879-80, bounded with windows that look out over farmland.

Some lines seem almost too good not to have been made up. “Wine and cheese? What are we, bohemians?!” Niece Caroline Commanville (Rosalind Lailey’s second role) is both anxious budgetary controller and – through her husband’s debts – cause of the oysterless tailspin Flaubert can’t compromise himself out of, with all the sinecures the others try. Caroline herself though has an ace: her gifts as a painter.

Figes is scrupulous, though; it can’t be enough. Caroline, 25 years Flaubert’s junior, is truly his daughter in spirit and he has reason to feel guilt there as well. Lailey’s watchful, tender portrayal is another quiet gem of this production.

Atallah’s second brief role as feminist and successful author Juliet Adam marks a tempo-change as Figes hints at politics and public lapping at these close relationships. It’s well handled, concentrated on the friends’ reactions, though equally it’s quite a lengthy second half, the work coming in at two hours twenty-five.

This tempo increases with Zola’s success, in stark contrast to Flaubert, and it’s how all the questions of art arise. What price celebrity fiction, writing paid columns for newspapers where the Figaro only wants distorted copy of fellow-writers? How to accept editors – or not in Flaubert’s case? Who proclaims the author  must be both everywhere in their fiction but invisible.

There’s memories of the prolific Balzac, withholding ejaculation in Taoist style but once failing; “I’ve lost a whole book!” That’s a variation of similar Balzac tales I’d best pass over. Maupassant is similarly always at the edge of the company – though the clap joke assumes you know his life. Tolstoy’s twitted, theatre thrashed, sly unconscious prophesies of authors’ deaths are made – blink and you’ll miss Zola’s. Taylor’s most moving of all: “When we Russians get caught in a snowstorm, we have a phrase: Don’t think about the cold, or you will die.”

All these are brought out, for the most part without a clink as Figes generates situations – frequent enough with writers – where the only thing one can talk about its editors, money, celebs. At a point where it begins to clunk, Flaubert rises to a pitch then is taken ill.

Catja Hamilton’s lighting complements the design neatly in this space. Harry Blake’s echt-salon piano compositions and sound – with occasional quotes – punctuate atmospherically to suggest a larger production – as always with JST – than the diminutive space van Braeckel has already shown herself respond to with particular inventiveness.

Though only act one features a true feast and individual spectacle, the words and characterisation more than supply the five courses; which Figes even in a debut play, understands how to deploy. I’d be loath to suggest what needs trimming, this work must stand not by sheer drama but the dramatic truthfulness brought to extraordinary people. A human gem, that’ll resonate after more theatrical fare fades.