REVIEW: Low Level Panic by Claire McIntyre

Phoebe Taylor and Gabrielle Sing in
Claire McIntyre's Low Level Panic

Claire McIntyre’s 1988 play about society’s objectification of women is a three-hander set in a share house, full of the drama and conflict of living with strangers who are almost friends and the struggles of knowing the right thing to feel when even your housemates tell you to toughen up.

Mary (Gabrielle Sing) is concerned about the nudie magazine she’s found in the bin. Jo (Phoebe Taylor) wants to enjoy life, but often retreats into fantasies about rich men and lorry drivers. Celia (Jessica Martin) seems shallow, oblivious to what is really going on in the house – swanning through life, to Jo’s dismay.

Thirty years from its first performance, Low Level Panic still feels vital, if very much of its time. As much as this production uses the props of 2019, some of the realities the play depicts feel dated. It’s not that the truth of objectification has changed, but being concerned about softcore girlie magazines in an era of internet-wide pornography casts Mary as a bit more naïve than really makes sense.

Director Kotryna Gesait’s production in traverse is intimate and hilarious, but never as confronting as it might be. The choice to direct Jo’s fantasies at men in the audience creates a real tension, but works mostly as comic value rather than digging deeply into what she is saying about men.

I was pleased with the choice to do the play in Australian accents; the universality of the story would suggest this choice should be uncontroversial, putting aside the British-isms conflicting with local place names like Berwick.

More oddly, the decision to have the characters take on other accents when discussing their fantasies puts the audience at a remove; some of those stories should be heartbreaking and they are reduced to comic runners.

There are moments when those walls come down, though. Sometimes the artifice is undone and we are shown below the surface of Mary and Jo – and the dramatic tension of McIntyre’s script is exposed to the audience. Gabrielle and Phoebe play off each other magnificently. Phoebe is confident and relaxed in the role of Jo, while Gabrielle slowly and subtly brings out the unease Mary has about the world.

Low Level Panic is a strong play with much to say. This production finds its truth about half of the time, muddled by odd choices in dramaturgy and direction.