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FringeReview UK 2023


Arcola Theatre and Rua Arts, Anarchy Division, Velenzia Spearpoint & Max Wilkinson

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, New Writing, Political, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Arcola Theatre Studio 2


Low Down

After his breakthrough Rainer, much is expected of Max Wilkinson. Here he dazzles in depth with a fable of the limits of human agency, and conscience. Do see it.

Directed by Wiebke Green, Set Designer & Costume Designer Kit Hinchcliffe, Lighting Design Martha Godfrey, Composer & Sound Designer Julian Starr, Videographer Rich Rusk Films

Stage Manager Gwennan Bain,  Production Manager Justin Treadwell

Marketing & Communications Velenzia Spearpoint, PR Mobius PR, Co-Producers Rua Arts, Anarchy Division, Velenzia Spearpoint & Max Wilkinson

Till August 12th


“Smell that.” Saskia invites us.  “That’s the city. In all its hurling, blurring glory. Sweet, summered, and partly asleep. But sick too… and angry.”

The evils of rentier capital and the death of council estates have never been so acute, so visible in theatre. Max Wilkinson’s Union opens at the Arcola’s Studio 2 directed by Wiebke Green till August 12th. It just happens I reviewed Gillian Slovo’s verbatim Grenfell at the National’s Dorfman the previous night.

Naturally nothing in Union can match the latter’s appalling litanies. But Wilkinson’s free to develop – as he has in workshops over several years – an imaginative response to root causes.

It’s distilled in one uber-successful developer: sassy, smiling, self-delighting Saskia (Dominique Tipper), 34 who glowing all the time in turquoise Lycra, crashes out of signing a deal that’ll crown her career and lead to partnership with her admiring senior Fraser’s firm Eckerd and Wise; to which would be added “Dunn”.

So why is Saskia running along the old Union canal back to her home in Stratford, and why does her old friend Dizzy still call to her from Hackney marshes? Composer and sound designer Julian Starr insinuates a gently pointillistic score, sussed as Saskia, rippling like the canal.

Though Wilkinson claims this work can be performed by just one actor, and the demands on the central character are already nearly one-person show level, it’s far better his suggested cast of three is used. Tipper’s extraordinary energy bounces off two others with phenomenal zing over 80 breathless minutes that for the right reason seem far longer.

Thus Saskia’s gentle apparently ineffectual husband Leon, and increasingly plaintive, spectral Dizzy running just out of reach, are played by multi-roling Sorcha Kennedy. Whilst many others, principally boss  Fraser and ex-lover Chris are taken by Andre Bullock.

The pull-through narrative follows Saskia’s self-narrated breakdown, as she first presents herself as proud uber-developer, then “look at me/Like polished oak/And at thirty-four things should be sagging, right?” After explicit jokes Saskia buttonholes us: ”I mean look at my stomach, madam./You could eat an egg off that./Now. Look at yours./Yeah. Think about it.” (I never realised late Millennials had to think “sagging” anything just yet).

Tipper burns through encounters dimming the gleam of muscle and plate-glass to canal grunge, encountering a gallimaufry of sobering figures, like Delroy whom she mistakes for homeless, who lessons her: “I know what you’re doing. I’ve read the pamphlets”; an informed view nearly every one of those Saskia encounters echoes, save for two muggers. Even they’re described as “bored’ by Saskia’s ex Chris later: the ludic anomie of displaced people.

Tipper often retches, recovers, smiles frantically, lurches back into the spiral descent of herself. It’s not an even descent: Saskia here seems to recover, just in time for the next bad idea, the next justification, but gradually wears down.

Most, like Toulouse and his communist girlfriend Fibre know exactly what Saskia stands for, including her embittered Mum whose mantra’s “Please don’t come here when you’re drunk”; and older Kerry, with all her talks of being once “nicely shagged” in a car-park. Each – played by Kennedy – turns on Saskia.

Or a few like Sammy (played, like Toulouse, by Bullock) have swallowed the new order whole, though conveying of developers that “they had to kick{Paula} out dragging and screaming” out of her ‘condemned’ flat. Then adding “… Aren’t you her niece?” Saskia’s disconnect, even indifference is flayed casually.

Only Dizzy and canal-dwelling Lottie who rescues Saskia, remain non-judgmental. Lottie’s: “If you want to you can change it. Just find out what makes you happy” works like a slow-acting drug, though Saskia thinks too late. And of course there’s Leon.

Kennedy brings a knowing gentleness to Leon, a haunted plaintiveness to Dizzy (a plotline gesture to Fleabag ingeniously varied), a wary brittleness to Saskia’s Mum, and a host of boppy, hippy, mugger, user and humorously explicit bag-lady parts switching in half-seconds, making most use of the clothing rail Kit Hinchcliffe’s set and costume design provides – Brechtian as Wilkinson suggests. On this bare-bricked space with nowhere to exit or hide, only as Martha Godfrey’s lighting softens and hardens, Kennedy’s tonal range is impressively wide too.

Bullock amplifies the bonhomie of creepily cheery Fraser, all bonhomie; he’s interested in more than Saskia’s signature, and though hardly more than a cipher, embodies what we’re up against. There’s warm laconic Chris, now landscape gardener, Sammy the yuppified son of the old grocer Saskia encounters.

Wilkinson’s developed this like circles of hell, so each character draws in more of Saskia’s past, more of her mistakes, decisions, acts of cowardice, cruelty even, as the self-justifying developer is fed back all the place-names she throws out as a doxology of bliss, including Hackney and – knowingly – Dalston.

In part a love-letter to London, Union has Saskia edge into being its dark soul of capital, thinking she’s its redemptive angel. You can’t mind the symbolism, Saskia’s full emptiness: her litanies of names, ending in Park Royal rise like the nightly prayer of the shipping forecast. But more desperately.

They’re like shuddering nails in civic identity, before –  as Kerry notes of enforced resettlement: “At my age everyone dies or moves to Ilford. Which is basically the same thing.” Though Chris, rescuing her from muggers, remains a permanent benign fixture. The play as acted removes one character almost entirely and simplifies the multi-roled climax.

Kennedy’s most moving moment though comes as Dizzy, and a recalled recent conversation, just as Saskia stands literally on a similar verge. There’s a climax when you feel it could go either way twice, and – you should see this.

After his breakthrough Rainer, much is expected of Wilkinson. Here he dazzles in depth with a fable of the limits of human agency, and conscience. Do see it.