Review: Low Level Panic (Orange Tree Theatre)

Sophie Melville stars in the first major revival of Clare McIntyre’s play about three women

If you want to understand women, listen to what they say to each other in a bathroom. That seems to be the wry observation behind Low Level Panic, Clare McIntyre’s 1988 play. It may be set in an avocado suite, but the play scrubs up well: its springy dialogue between three female housemates in their twenties is still both very funny, and perceptive.

It offers an image of a candid friendship between two chums, Jo and Mary; in the first scene we see the former having a bath while the other has a fag out the bathroom window. They overshare about sex and body image in a way that feels bang on-trend, not 30 years old. Lena Dunham, eat your heart out.

McIntyre, who died in 2009, had a great ear for dialogue, and Chelsea Walker’s nuanced direction pin-points its intimate, silly humour as well as probing the pain that lurks beneath the girls’ affectionate bickering. Big banner '80s feminist topics – pornography, the objectification of women, male sexual violence, internalised self-loathing – sometimes loom imposingly, but are mostly woven into what feel like very real, recognisable lives.

Both women also deliver monologues revealing that even overshare is never quite the whole the truth. Mary recreates a scene of sexual assault; we don’t see the men, but instead hear her voice, as if she can’t stop replaying it, gradually detuned till it’s low, more masculine. She violently grabs her own crotch. But Mary is also full of tortured anxiety over the short skirt she was wearing, for work, that night. She begins to rail against the way women are turned into blank, dressed-up dolls for men to lust over, to grab. The low level panic of the title is, presumably, her now-constant background fear that any man might do just that.

Jo, meanwhile, may gabble about how much she hates being fat, but that’s really only the acceptable moan: the fear behind it is that no-one will ever love her. Her monologue tells the audience a masturbation fantasy about being shagged in the back of a lorry, and how afterwards she cries because "I just feel sad about everything I don’t have". For Jo, not being looked at by men, not being desired, is as bad as unwanted attention.

What still feels vital about McIntyre’s play is that she allows both these viewpoints to rub up against one another. Because this stuff can be complicated and contradictory. Yet we feel the truth of both sentiments.
The reaction of Jo to her friend’s attack is, perhaps, the thing that dates the play – it’s surprising to see her brush it off, to accept that’s the norm, rather than it being framed as a traumatic event. Then again, we do have a president who boasts about grabbing women by the pussy, so maybe things haven’t changed that much…

The production sings thanks to two buoyant performances. Sophie Melville finds a flickering flame of outrage in Mary and proves that the scorching stage magnetism she exhibited in Iphigenia in Splott was far from a one-off. As Jo, the warm and watchable Katherine Pearce has great comic timing and a sympathetic sadness.

Samantha Pearl as the underwritten third housemate Celia has much less to play with – although her comically thwarted desires for a long hot soak do remind that, alongside all the serious stuff, Low Level Panic is a comedy about having to share a grotty bathroom in your twenties. Yet another thing that hasn’t changed a bit since 1988.

Click here to read our interview with the cast of Low Level Panic

Low Level Panic runs at the Orange Tree Theatre untill 25 March.