Low Level Panic, by British playwright Clare McIntyre, was performed for the first time at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1988. It’s unfortunate that, almost three decades later, it’s themes remain as relevant – perhaps, even more so – than at that time.
Presented by Thread Entertainment in association with Red Line Productions, Low Level Panic, now playing at Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre, tells the story of three young women. The entire piece (roughly two hours in length) is set in the young women’s home bathroom and examines the complexity of their relationships with themselves and each other, focusing on that complication that stems from their objectification by men. It’s a reflection on how women’s perceptions of themselves are fundamentally impacted by how they think men expect to see them, and the repercussions that has for the way that they live their lives.
The first of Low Level Panic’s three characters is Jo (Amy Ingram), who initially gives the impression of being a character of some strength, but who, in fact, is enormously insecure about her body and image, and spends considerable time fantasising about relationships with men. In those fantasies, Jo is always a physically idealised version of herself and behaves in a manner she believes will most please her male partner.
Then there’s Mary (Kate Skinner), who seems somewhat on edge. She converses with Jo about the fact she has found a pornographic magazine in a bin outside, and expresses her disgust at the publication and its depiction of women. It sparks an extended conversation through which the work’s central themes begin to emerge – the characters’ individual struggles with their identities and the source of those struggles. Jo, we discover, has been the victim of a sexual assault, and that (unsurprisingly) further impacts the way in which she views herself and how she behaves. We see her, at one point, obsess over a dress she’s purchased, and her efforts to dye it as a means of drawing less attention to herself, to ensure her invisibility.
Finally, we meet Celia (Geraldine Hakewill), who is more conservative than her housemates and may be an obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferer (the evidence of which comes from the way in which she meticulously organises her toiletries around the bathtub before taking her bath). Celia is the only character who, during the course of the piece, has some form of relationship with a man, though we never actually see that person.
Normally, when Low Level Panic is staged, it’s the three women only who appear in the piece, but in this production, director Justin Martin has added seven non-descript male characters. Additionally, he’s cast a young girl, who appears at key moments in the show as a means by which to convey each of the central characters looking at their young selves.
The only males given any sort of identity, man A (Joshua McElroy) and man B (Caleb Alloway), appear in a depiction of Mary’s flashback to her sexual assault. It’s a disturbing re-enactment which, fortunately, ends before any portrayal of the assault itself. Without giving too much away, the dramatic impact of the scene is heightened by the way in which Martin has chosen to have the two men ‘emerge’ from the audience.
For the most part, the men in Low Level Panic are seated on either side of the stage. The piece already has a voyeuristic feel to it created simply by the fact of its events unfolding in that most private of domains – the bathroom of the three young women – but the presence of the men on stage, their gaze fixed firmly on the women throughout, serves only to intensify that feel. It’s also effective as a constant reminder of how these women’s behaviour is shaped significantly by their perceptions of how men see them. In creating the physical setting, Jonathan Hindmarsh has designed an effective set that makes good use of the Old Fitz’s rather cosy stage space.
McIntyre has written a strong script that only ever feels very real. Nothing is over-the-top, but at the same time, the dialogue isn’t trite. It’s been well crafted to move events along and ensure its central themes remain crystal clear. Moments of humour are also well woven into the text.
The strong female cast delivers the dialogue beautifully, with Ingram, Skinner and Hakewill all skilfully and convincingly depicting their characters and, tellingly, reminding us of various people in our own lives.
It’s questionable whether some aspects of the piece, introduced specifically for this production, are necessary – for example, some audio/visual components and a musical number. Whether their incorporation is essential in order for the work to realise its full impact in 2016 is arguable.
On the whole, however, Low Level Panic is a powerful piece that will resonate with Sydney audiences – both its male and female members. Let’s ensure that, three decades from now, we don’t find ourselves still living in a world where the daily struggles of McIntyre’s characters ring true in the society of the day.