Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, 16 February – 25 March 2017
By Clare McIntyre
Cast: Jo - Katherine Pearce; Mary - Sophie Melville; Celia - Samantha Pearl
Written thirty years ago when in-your-face feminism was eagerly lapped up by the all-prevalent left-wing audiences of the eighties, Low Level Panic probably went down a treat. Indeed, it won a range of awards for the late Clare McIntyre, including the Evening Standard’s “Most Promising Playwright”.
“In some ways, it is disappointing that Low Level Panic still holds resonance about the dilemmas of female sexuality in an arguably male-dominated society. ”
In some ways, it is disappointing that Low Level Panic still holds resonance about the dilemmas of female sexuality in an arguably male-dominated society. There is some sense of the play having dated in this arena. However, despite achievements in gender equality across education, work and the home, the torment surrounding appearance and desire for young women still rings true.
Set in a squalid bathroom shared by three young, single women, the play focuses on their feelings in relation to men for whom they long or fear. The flat-mates bare their bodies and souls in an intimate setting perfect for the exposure of both. We listen to their secrets, hang-ups, furies, and fantasies as they prepare for going out.
The play opens with the two key characters sharing their respective obsessions. Jo (Katherine Pearce) is in the bath naked, bemoaning her legs, her weight, her body. Mary (Sophie Melville) is perched on the window sill flicking through a porn magazine she picked out of a bin, loudly mocking the excerpts on male lust and the boasts about virility.
Curiously, the third player Celia (Samantha Pearl) has a very minor role. Her character seems to serve only as comma or a pause here and there between the generous monologues and dialogues of the other two. One wonders whether McIntyre ran out of ideas for the this flatmate or whether the Orange Tree made stage cuts?
The juxtaposition of the inner torments of the two key women is superb. Jo constantly wishes she were skinnier, prettier, sexier. And yet she is resigned to her body and fed-up with self-loathing. In monologue, she plays out these contradictions. She confesses her fantasies: she wants every man in the room to desire her; she wants sex with multiple partners; she wants to be fucked by lorry drivers. But, in reality, she is rarely impressed by the men she meets (particularly lorry drivers). Jo is well-played as a sassy, defiant character - despite her witty self-criticism - with great humour by Katherine Pearce.
Mary is also full of contradictions and performed by Sophie Melville with subtlety and force.
She has the slim body much beloved by Jo and yet she despairs of her appearance for attracting the wrong type of male attention. She is a petrified and angry character, living in fear of meeting her recent attackers. Despite her fear, she is defiant. She rages against the sexual objectification of women in daily life and pornography.
Both actors have taken on a challenge in Low Level Panic, not least in being under the spotlight physically whilst discoursing at great length about rape, objectification, fantasy and desire. Both have carried off their roles with conviction and credibility.
Despite there being a sense of the play having dated, the themes are all the more pertinent in the current climate where young women are increasingly obsessed by achievement through appearance and sexual bravado as witnessed by endless cultivated selfies and the scrutiny of Instagram.