Thirty years since its premiere and Clare McIntyre’s play Low Level Panic is still as relevant as ever. Set in '80s, in the flat of three young women over two days, the piece looks at women’s relationships but also the way in which society objectifies women and the characters all ring as true as they did when it first opened at the Royal Court. In Chelsea Walker’s revival for the Orange Tree Theatre – the first major revival in 30 years – three excellent actresses take on McIntyre’s characters. Sophie Melville (who starred in the recent coruscating Iphigenia in Splott), Katherine Pearce (who worked as part of the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre ensemble) and Samantha Pearl (who recently starred in Belarus Free Theatre’s Tomorrow I was Always A Lion) play Mary, Jo and Celia and we caught up with them during rehearsals to find out why this play is still so necessary.
So we’re here in the rehearsal room and there’s a big bath in the middle of the floor, is the play set in a bathroom, by any chance?
Sophie Melville: There are parts of the play that are not set in the bathroom, but we’ve decided to keep it all in the bathroom.
Katherine, you are having to open the play in the bath. Are you nervous about getting starkers onstage?
Katherine Pearce: When you’re at drama school you think: ‘Oh my god [having to get naked for a part is] the worst thing that could happen to me’. But maybe it’s something about getting older and feeling better about who you are, that now I feel really easy about it. And it actually makes the scene better. If I hadn’t seen the TV series Girls, I don’t think I would be able to do it. Because you rarely see somebody that looks like yourself naked.
The play is an intimate portrait of three young women, so presumably it’s an important part of the plot to have the bath scene in there?
SM: Yes. It’s three women [living] without any male gaze or filter of any kind, it’s just being open.
Samantha Pearl: [Nudity] is still very commented on. The show I did before this had nudity in and it wasn’t sexual and it wasn’t gratuitous, it was needed for the narrative. And it still came under fire. [In Low Level Panic] it’s satisfying because the whole play is set in a bathroom, so for one of them to have a bath, makes sense. It really, really does.
KP: It’s such a normal thing. It’s just bodies.
SM: Women being sexualised is a massive issue that is brought up in the play. So it’s wonderful that it’s treated in such an un-sexual manner.
That feels like quite a radical thing…
SM: Which is amazing because it’s an '80s play.
SP: One of the things we’ve been looking at is that there’s a lot of things that haven’t changed, unfortunately.
SM: That’s the brilliant thing about Chelsea picking this play. This was set in the '80s and look at how little has actually changed. [Today] we’re forced to think that women should have six packs and big boobs and guns and all the rest of it. It’s ridiculous.
Tell me about the play…
KP: The other day the Orange Tree artistic director Paul [Miller] said it’s less about a plot. It’s more just a window. There isn’t a big event that happens. It starts half way through a conversation and ends half way through a conversation.
SM: They are all getting ready to go to a party, so it starts Saturday morning, and two of them go shopping, they get ready, they go out and it’s the morning after. But it’s more the exploration of their relationships without any men around. It sounds quite boring when you say it like that. Even though there’s not any men in the play, there is still a massive male presence.
Can you explain that a little?
SM: It’s there in what men expect from women, what women expect from men. The expectations women have: how you are supposed to behave, what’s normal, is your body the right shape, should you dress a certain way…
SP: Should you wear make-up, how important is it to make the most of yourself, who are you doing that for?
You are all similar in age to the characters you play, do you recognise the sorts of relationships you have with friends in the play?
SM: Yeah, especially sharing a bathroom. I’ve lived with girls that have driven me mad in the past. It is hilarious and it’s spot on. It’s exactly what women are like.
SP: Also the bits where they just miss each other as well. So Jo and Mary are extremely close but [there are things the still] don’t talk about. Celia is the outsider and there’s so much stuff she would like to say to them. But she doesn't.
SM: Clare’s sister Lesley came into rehearsals and she said that Clare very much saw herself in all of the characters. They were definitely sides of her. It feels real. It feels like real women.
KP: There is a complexity that comes with any female friendship: there's jealousy and envy too. To misquote Lena Dunham, it’s as complex as a big romance.
It feels as though Clare’s work has been overlooked slightly – this is the first major revival of the play. Are we doing enough to ensure plays by women are on our stages at the moment?
SM: I don’t think so.
SM: We’re not even equal yet when it comes to actors or who is working behind the scenes.
KP: But we are getting there, we are taking massive steps. Emma Rice, Rufus Norris, Sean Holmes, there are people taking steps.
SP: It’s also about not ghetto-ising it. I feel the same, about black plays or Asian plays. Yes, this is a play with three women in it, with three women living together, it’s directed by a female director, it’s written by a female writer, but it’s a universal play. It’s not about filling the quota, I think it’s more about universalising everything so then it will be an equal share.
Low Level Panic runs from 20 February to 25 March, with previews from now.