I had been forewarned about the opening scene a few weeks earlier when I bought our tickets. I was about to pay when the smiley face of the man in the box office suddenly turned serious. He looked me in the eyes and with great solemnity delivered a prepared statement: “I should warn you, the play contains some nudity.” A little surprised and feeling patronised, I thanked him for his candour, adding that such images would not be new to either my wife nor myself, and that I was confident we would cope. Then came his second proclamation – “I should also warn you that the play contains some strong language.” I assumed it was the usual expletives, accepted his warning, took my tickets and left.
It was soon clear to what the warnings referred. When the lights went up, there, in a bath tub centre stage and just ten feet away, sat an actress completely naked. What bubbles there were reached her navel, only to fall away when she stood up to dry. Jo was plump, fortyish, unabashed and in no way ‘sexy’. Soon she was talking with Mary, a fully dressed and unconcerned flatmate. This opening scene of ‘Low Level Panic’, by the feminist playwright Clare McIntyre, was the beginning of seventy five minutes of discovery, reassurance and splendid entertainment.
In addition to the nudity, “strong” swearwords peppered the play, but it all felt very natural and appropriate. As did their discussion about pornography, rape, masturbation, men’s lewd and aggressive behaviour and so on. Jo, Mary, and a third woman, Celia, share a flat and the play takes place in their bathroom. In addition to talking about men, they argue over whose turn it is to use the bath, the pros and cons of wearing make up, what one should wear to a party, the value of perfume, finding partners and on being pretty, or not.
The play, which is well-crafted and moves easily from the serious to the very amusing, was written in 1988 and while some aspects are dated – there are no mobile phones to be seen – the sentiments are genuine and as pertinent as ever. Despite the play’s heritage, before seeing it I had been concerned about my choice for the evening’s entertainment. My wife Rohan is very aware of, and sensitive to, women’s issues, and I had worried that she would see the play as trivial or offensive and, worst of all, written from the male perspective.
During the performance we, the audience, had a ringside seat into a woman’s world, warts and all. And, as the stage at the Orange Tree theatre is tiny with the audience sitting all round, we were able to watch the reactions of other members of the public. Two animated young women to my right moved seamlessly from listening intently, to smiling, to laughing out loud and back again. Throughout the play, the thirty-something couple opposite looked ill-at ease, possibly even angry. From their body language, the majority of the older women in the audience were amused and fully at home. As for the older men, several appeared embarrassed, not knowing exactly were to look.
Rohan found the evening both a delight and a relief; the play’s dialogue and sentiments reflected exactly those of real women. The self-same views were expressed by a close woman friend in her fifties and by Ali, our daughter-in-law, who found being there wonderfully ‘refreshing’.
For me, a man in his mid seventies, the wonders were different. For the first time I had been privy to real women’s conversation unadulterated by the presence of men; I had shared a space where women’s nudity and swearing didn’t carry any sexual or ‘smutty’ connotation; finally I had heard a group of women talk freely about some of their dreams, expectation and frustrations as they related to men.
Had I had daughters, had I been younger or better read, had I followed sitcoms or plays on the TV, things might have been different. But that is not the case, and for me it was a matter of ‘better late than never’, and for that I am most grateful. Interestingly, Ali argued that the play should be compulsory viewing for men generally, and if my experience is anything to go by, I would agree, but obviously they would first have to pass the box-office purity grilling.
Photo: Helen Murray