Low Level Panic - at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

How perfect does a woman have to be to end up in a happy, successful relationship?

Samantha Pearl and Katherine Pearce

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Low Level Panic runs until 25 March, 2017; 1 hour 20 minutes no interval.

Tickets (concessions, standing and under-30s reduced prices)
Orange Tree Theatre

Box Office: 020 8940 3633

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That’s the question depressingly asked by countless generations of women and this enthralling play shows it’s no better today.

Quite a week for undressed actresses and bared female flesh: robustly matured in “Girls”, the knock-out musical about the WI calendar girls that opened in London’s West End, and here, barely out of its womanly mould, in a play that tells us an awful lot about how difficult it is for a young, single woman to feel she is being herself and not a male-dictated stereotype.

Set in the privacy (except for the audience!) of a flat-sharers’ bathroom, we meet Jo, a joyous creation by actress Katherine Pearce, as she considers her body in the bath and chats intimately to pal Mary (played by the Tinkerbell-like Sophie Melville). Written a good 10 years before Bridget Jones’ big knickers made their appearance in a diary, Jo wishes she was skinny, or at least had the will power to eat less. With that, she feels, would come the certainty of finding a gorgeous boyfriend.

The conversation is triggered by Mary having found a lads’ “top shelf” mag in the garden, full not so much of porn as boastful sexual bravado and, “Cor I’d like to give ‘er one” objectification of women. And it makes Mary angry, but also fearful. We learn more of Mary’s anxieties as she flits about the scenery, talking from precarious perches above the windows without a safety line, real or psychological, in sight.

Sophie Melville

And as they chat on about sex and males and love and the future, you realise how little they really know about blokes other than some embarrassed sexual encounters and whatever they’ve picked up from what they’ve read or seen on TV. And even if they have ever talked, properly, to someone they fancy, they assume, as Mary says, men “are saying one thing and thinking another.”

And in this double-think world they labour under an enormous burden of ill- defined expectation of what a woman should be.

Once again, the Orange Tree has picked on a perfectly timed revival. The late Clare McIntyre’s 1988 play rings so true here in the next century, where young women fear being molested out on the street, are accused of being provocative, have to compete with the unrealistic body images on porn sites and are disturbingly giving up on the battle for equality. All worries reflected here in the mirrors of a tatty avocado bathroom so brilliantly re-created, down to the spilt talc and Jif under the sink, by designer Rosanna Vize.

Even downing a bottle of dubious white wine and wobbling out to a party that promises to be yet another total disappointment rings true of our more recent binge-drinking and “pre-drinks” generations.

The third member of the flat is Celia, played by Samantha Pearl, who conforms to the rule that every flatshare has to include a flatmate who’s a pain. In the face of the closeness between Mary and Jo, it’s a pretty thankless role but important. For where Jo and Mary remain lost and confused, Celia accepts the world as it is. She’s “settling”, for good or bad.

My only criticism is that it feels, with its abrupt end, a bit like half a play. Celia is underwritten and we really want to spend more time with Mary and Jo in their confessional bathroom. But perhaps that’s as perfect as real life allows.

For all its truthfulness this is a funny, moving play and not without hope. Because these girls, 25 years younger than the West End’s “Girls”, are so full of life and fertile with potential.

Liz Vercoe

Photographs: Helen Murray

February 24, 2017

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