Jo (Amy Ingram) is naked in the bath as we enter, splashing, singing, washing, masturbating. In walks housemate Mary (Kate Skinner), hardcore porn magazine in-hand, as Celia (Geraldine Hakewill) bangs on the door, desperate for a bath before the hot water runs out. And so begins playwright Clare McIntyre’s no-holds-barred examination into the intimate lives of three female housemates. Or, more accurately, her examination of how the lives of women are affected by the conscious and subconscious actions of men and their objectification of, and sense of entitlement to, our bodies.
The play is told through the eyes of three housemates; three very individual women who unfortunately have to share a bathroom. This small, raised set complete with running water (designed by Jonathan Hindmarsh) is where most of the action takes place, and Justin Martin’s clever direction allows us to believe it wholeheartedly. The bathroom is where a lot of mundane, intimate things happen every day, but it’s also a place of solace, of escape, of rejuvenation, of reinvigoration. We see it all happen for these women.
The script is originally from the UK (with giveaway Britishisms that for some reason haven’t been changed for this production), and is undeniably provocative. But what’s remarkable, and also incredibly saddening, is that this play was written in the 1980’s. The reason it’s sad? It’s still so incredibly relevant today.
Martin has made a few changes however, and brings the production forward into the modern day by incorporating the internet, and social media. The rise of the internet has given abusers and haters a veil of anonymity behind which they can hide — anyone with a connection and an account can hurl disgusting, violent threats on all sorts of platforms. But the internet has also allowed and empowered women to express their feelings and share their experiences in a safe environment with other women, as we see from messages projected onto a screen at the end.
Another change of Martin’s comes in the form of adding a male ‘chorus’. The original script only has three characters (the women) but Martin has gloriously expanded it for this production. Seven men — Joshua McElroy, Caleb Alloway, Luke Carson, Patrick Cullen, Scott Eveleigh, David Lang and Brendon Taylor — hover around the outside, voyeurs into the intimate lives of our protagonists. They represent the gaze of all men, unwanted and undetected by women. They also dress and undress the women, perform tight choreography in the party sequence (a genius feat of direction), fulfil Celia’s fantasies in a musical number, and in one chilling scene a couple of them become the menacing strangers who accost Mary on her way home from work. The chorus is a nice addition, adding depth and a feeling of constant uneasiness, but its presence in the second half is almost non-existent, which seems jarring.
All three women give superb performances. Ingram is bold and brave as Jo. She’s utterly compelling, and navigates Jo’s vast emotional journey beautifully. Skinner as Mary is raw and fragile, demonstrating a powerful understanding of the emotional aftermath of an assault. As perky Celia, Hakewill proves a wonderful contrast. She is completely charming and has fantastic comic timing. That’s not to say Celia doesn’t feel the pressure, though — unlike the others, she has succumbed to the misogynistic, unrealistic beauty standards set up for women, and struggles to always “make the most” of herself with a strict beauty regimen that verges on obsessive.
Low Level Panic is certainly a conversation starter, and an important one at that. Most concerning is that some people, men in particular, don’t actually believe that this everyday sexism, on all levels from an “accidental” breast graze to full-blown assault, actually happens. I had a conversation after the show with the male I brought along. He asked me if all of that “stuff” actually happened? I told him, after I finished staring at him in disbelief for a good 5 seconds, that of course it did, and has happened to me. And he had the gall to seem sceptical about it.
This play is terrifyingly real. Any one of us could be walking home from her night shift at work and have exactly what happened to Mary happen to us. Statistically, more than one woman sitting in that audience already has. For female viewers, I hope it empowers you as it did me, and gives you a sense of solidarity. For the men, I hope it humbles you, and even scares you a little bit.
Low Level Panic is integral viewing for everyone. It’s eyeopening, provocative and important. Don’t miss it.
Playing at the Old Fitz Theatre until August 12.
Alana Kaye – Theatre Now