It troubles me that the hurt and the angst that the young women in Low Level Panic battle are still issues for young women today, thirty years after this play was written. When this play first debuted at the Royal Court in 1988, its observations of misogyny and her portrayal of young women saw critics and audiences acclaim Clare McIntyre’s work as radical. And it was.
In a tiny unkempt bathroom in a cramped flat, Clare has three young women share jokes, tease, and confide their fears. There’s nudity and smoking, swearing and explicit conversations. These are women talking about being women – and talking about just how damn hard it is.
With its themes of feminism and misogyny, this is an explicitly feminist play that explores sexual agency and sexual assault, the conflict between desire for heterosexual sex and a fear of male violence, and how women are bombarded with unrealistic and misogynistic depictions of women from wider society.
But what hurts so much as you watch these three young women try their best to navigate their way in a world that is warping their value systems and destroying their self-esteem, is, how is it that this exploration of young women coming of age in a world where their bodies are desired, abused and misrepresented as a matter of course is still pertinent? Have we really made so little progress?
Because we haven’t.
Sure, the details may have changed – where Jo (Katherine Pearce) and Mary (Sophie Melville) are bewildered by top-shelf pornography magazines, you could replace this with online porn today, and where unrealistic and sexually available female bodies in billboard advertising were the focus in the Eighties, well, we’ve beauty magazines, the whole fashion industry and Instagram envy to build on that.
But though the sources have changed, the problems have not. And whilst this may seem standard material to us now, Clare McIntyre infused her work with humanity, heart and moments of real anxiety by crystallising all of these themes in a central provocation – how do women find fulfilling sexual encounters and relationships in a world of male violence and male entitlement?
Set over a single day, we see these three young women get ready for a party, bickering over hot water for the bath and fretting over whether a new party dress might be, well, sending the wrong message. These conversations are warm, witty but revealing too. Mary mocks and hates the content of a porn magazine she finds dumped outside in the bins, whilst Jo desperately wants a hook-up. Yes, she’s horny but she’s also lonely, and underneath her jokes and banter she harbours fears that men don’t want her because she’s chubby. Whilst all Celia (Samantha Pearl) wants is some peaceful reflection time for herself.
It is the central friendship between Jo and Mary that anchors this play, and through their light-hearted chats, drunken confessions, and private monologues, we see ourselves in two women trying to toughen themselves up to survive in a world that won’t change. Sophie Melville and Katherine Pearce shine as these two friends, both so able to bring moments of both humour and heart-breaking sorrow to their characters.
There’s some great touches to the production too. Director Chelsea Walker has brought a terrific balance of energy to the piece – keeping it whippet-quick when the girls are together, but slowing it right up for some of the revealing private monologues.
And the set design from Rosanna Vize is deceptively simple, allowing the cast to get the most from it, not just in the round but upwards too.
This is terrific production of a ground-breaking piece of work. True, those (few) female voices that have come through in theatre since this play debuted have written far angrier, more subversive and more confrontational takes on sexual politics and society’s power imbalances. More than anything, this reflects not so much how the subject matter has changed but increasing anger at a lack of progress. Inevitably, therefore, this shows this play up as a piece of its time, but it also demonstrates how Clare McIntyre was a pioneering writer and why, with her death in 2009 at only 57, we really did lose a talented writer and a crucial theatrical voice way too soon.
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, to March 25, 2017
All production images by Helen Murray.