Photo by Julia Robertson
LOW LEVEL PANIC
Old Fitzroy Theatre, July 14. Until August 12
British writer Clare McIntyre’s breakthrough play premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1988. It was, and remains, a provoking study of the ways in which women’s lives are affected by the omnipresent, objectifying and frequently prurient male gaze.
This production directed by Justin Martin refreshes McIntyre’s thesis by making it reverberate in the echo chamber of contemporary social media.
Largely confined to the bathroom shared by three housemates, Low Level Panic offers an acute slice-of-life observation of three young women and the multifarious ways in which male behaviour – the conscious and the unconscious – impacts on their self-esteem, their sexual and romantic lives, and sense of security and freedom.
At first sight (naked in the bath), Jo (Amy Ingram) seems impervious to anyone else’s opinion. But her exterior toughness masks deep loneliness and disgust at her own body.
Mary (Kate Skinner) seems more fragile, having been very much rattled by the discovery of a porn magazine in the rubbish bin. Later, we learn she is struggling with the aftershocks of a sexual assault.
Celia (Geraldine Hakewill), recently moved in, is younger by a couple of years and seems, by contrast, quite serene. Yet she is obsessed with her beauty regimen and consumed by her one-woman crusade against slovenliness.
McIntyre’s original play is a three-hander. Martin expands that vision with epic theatre strategies, songs, choreographed sequences (including one featuring a young girl who represents their child selves), and a seven-man chorus.
Dressed in black and interchangeable, the men serve as stagehands and dressers. They perform on stage, too, filling an already cramped bathroom to bursting with rowdy partygoers or dancing in a musical sequence devoted to Celia’s fantasies. Two participate in a chilling re-creation of the assault Mary suffered on her way home from work one night.
When not directly employed in a scene the men sit side of stage, observing these women in their intimate moments. They are a disconcerting presence, manifestations of our own voyeuristic impulses.
The chemistry whipped up between the three women is strong and convincing. Individually, each performance rings truthfully.
Ingram, a Queensland actor making her Sydney stage debut, is magnetic as the bolshie yet bereft Jo. Skinner digs deep as the haunted Mary. Hakewill is charming and funny as Celia, whose strategy seems to be to flatter the male gaze at all times. Her model looks are deployed to calculated effect.
The production’s audiovisual components need some strengthening (glitchy feeds from mobile phones projected on a tiny screen above the set don’t really cut it), but in all other respects this is a very coherent, well designed and thoughtfully made work.
We’ve seen a lot of good theatre in Sydney in recent weeks, but Low Level Panic strikes me as the one show we need to see right now.
SOURCE: smh.com.au / Photography by Julia Robertson