Low Level Panic

Clare McIntyre
Orange Tree, Richmond

Katherine Pearce and Sophie Melville Credit: Helen Murray
Samantha Pearl and Katherine Pearce Credit: Helen Murray
Sophie Melville Credit: Helen Murray

Low Level Panic is a reminder of the days when feminism was still relatively a relatively untested phenomenon and AIDS terrified the young and messed with their sex lives.

Clare McIntyre's 1988 play about the objectification of women and the impact that this has is of its time, while still feeling remarkably contemporary, addresses the concerns of three mildly neurotic young women sharing a flat and each other's ups and downs.

Although they have been deliberately created as distinguishable, representative types, at least two are fully delineated and recognisable as the kind of people you could meet at a party any day of the week.

Sophie Melville is an actress to watch and delivers a tour de force as Mary, a beautiful Welsh woman who has been traumatised by an unfortunate incident with some wild lads on a rare occasion when she wore a skirt while cycling.

Quite what happened is left unsaid, although the fear that she shows in a brief flashback is all too real in such a doubly intimate space.

The Orange Tree's in-the-round configuration leaves nowhere to hide and neither does the cramped bathroom, cleverly conceived for such an unusual staging by designer Rosanna Vize and uncomfortably shared by the trio.

This gives Miss Melville opportunities to show off in both a glorious, literally breath-taking rant and then a moving monologue that shines a light on her character's troubled soul.

Mary's insecurity comes from all too familiar societal pressure, which leaves her feeling like "a tart" when she wears a slinky dress rather than usual comfy t-shirt and jeans.

Her friend Jo, played with sensitivity by Katherine Pearce, is a seemingly sunny soul who is a little overweight. However she too is tormented by perceived inadequacies. The northern lass might be a bundle of laughs at first sight but scratch the surface and you soon reach a layer that is terrified of being left on the shelf. As such, she and Mary form a mutual support group of two, each constantly bolstering the confidence of her friend.

That leaves Samantha Pearl's Celia, a spoilt rich girl who is little more than a cypher, the part having been underwritten. This is a shame in what is otherwise a touching vision of womanhood combining humour with some insightful glimpses of closely observed lives that would have been much stronger with a fully developed third character.

As so often, The Orange Tree is to be lauded for discovering a worthwhile, forgotten drama that benefits from Chelsea Walker's fine direction and some good acting.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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