Low Level Panic, Bread & Roses Theatre - Review

Pamela Schermann's latest play Low Level Panic was written in 1988 by Clare McIntyre, but there's nothing dated about its core message: what is the world's perception of women and how do they in turn view themselves? Over the past year, there's been much debate over body image and the status of women, "thigh gaps" and adverts that state "Are you beach body ready?" to name but a few examples. In the past couple of days, Match.com got into hot water for referring to freckles as imperfections. Then there's the subject of women's sexuality and 'slut shaming' in general, with the likes of Emily Ratajkowski  and Kim Kardashian defending their public personas, saying: "However sexual our bodies may be, we need to have the freedom as women to choose when and how we express our sexuality," Then are those who have taken umbrage with this interpretation of 'freedom'...

Low Level Panic is set for the most part within a bathroom – a place of solace and reflection, of protection from the outside world, and of course where to get ready for a night out. The play begins with Mary (Tessa Hart) reading to Jo (Rebecca Pryle) an 'article' from a pornographic magazine that's been dumped in their dustbin. Mary is visibly disturbed by what she's reading while Jo, in contrast, is quite bemused. Mary's reaction reminded me of Kathy's in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go, who 'reads' a similar mag 'just for kicks' but deep down feels this is what she is to others – a 'thing', divorced from her own sensuality. ­

Jo is more sanguine about the men's magazine, recognising the fantasy in the 'article' for what it is and happy to admit the fantasies she has regard to consequence-free sex with men.  Deep-down she knows that the fantasies don't hold up on the real world, but it doesn't stop her having a keen interest in the opposite sex. It's not that Jo doesn't find 'imperfections' with her own body or blind to the fact that some men are only after one thing. It's just that she doesn't find it helpful to mentally tie herself in knots over what's 'right' for a woman to think/behave. In any case, Mary's anxiety on the issue and general unhappiness seems to justify not thinking too deep on the matter.

However Mary's stance hasn't come out of nowhere and one of the most important things that this production succeeds in is the flashback scene that depicts the origins of her trauma. Suffice to say Mary's reactions to sex and men are understandable, even when she erroneously blames her past appearance for what's happened.

As co-founders of Bread & Roses Theatre and Company with its track record for female-led events such as One Billion Rising and the UNHEARD Festival, it is obvious the show's message means a lot to Pryle and Hart, and their natural rapport and shorthand really helps to sell the deep friendship of Jo and Mary, despite being very different from each other.       

Depending on who is cast and how she's directed, Celia the other housemate can feel like a third wheel in the play ­– there to moan about lack of access to the bathroom and the absence of hot water. Sassy Clyde who plays her in this production really brings out the humour and humanity in the role, straddling the middle ground (philosophically speaking) between Mary and Jo, rather than behaving in a prematurely middle-aged fashion.

It has to be said, before I conclude, that the set for this show is one of the best I've seen at the Bread & Roses Theatre and set designer Jo Jones has done wonders with creating this domestic oasis.

There is a point in the play where Mary wonders if men have body issues, to which Jo in so many words, says she thinks not. A few weeks ago, actor Wentworth Miller posted a candid admission online about how body-shaming affected him years ago, to the point he was clinically depressed and suicidal. That fact that these issues are being recognised as 'genderless' gives us cause for cautious hope, though there is still a long way to go before everyone is on the same page regarding the issues raised in Low Level Panic.

© Michael Davis 2016

Low Level Panic runs at the Bread & Roses Theatre until 30th April 2016.



Picture credit: Kenneth Jay

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