Whatever happened to coloured enamel in bathrooms? According to the website retrowow.co.uk “coloured bathroom suites are tipped for a comeback.” Whether or not it’s really true that vintage-lovers have been trawling eBay looking for a classic burgundy bog to plumb in, the simple answer is that they went out of fashion. Because ‘fashion’ is a pretty specific thing, and even a few years can dramatically alter what is considered ‘in’. The way that the current Undergrads I spot around wear 90s styles is very different to the way Baby Spice and friends wore them in the actual 90s. The zeitgeist zooms by very quickly.
The Orange Tree Theatre’s revival of Low Level Panic by Clare McIntyre is particularly adept at conjuring up a very specific era. Nicola Holter’s costumes are masterpieces of stonewashed denim, Reebok trainers and yards of crushed black velvet. In one scene the slightly prissy Celia (Samantha Pearl) comes in wearing a pink crossover ballet top straight out of Pineapple’s back catalogue, accompanied by cycling shorts. Whatever happened to cycling shorts? I hear you also ask. (Only I don’t, because unlike peach-hued cisterns, some things really do go out of fashion for a reason.)
Rosanna Vize’s set design demonstrates a similar level of attention to detail to the costuming. Green bottles of roll-on deodorant compete for space with super-sized shaving foam, disposable Bic razors and talcum powder (rather quaintly used in place of dry shampoo). In amongst all these beautifying products are flashes of bright pink rubber gloves and bottles of fabric conditioner.
Even the porn magazine that Mary (Sophie Melville) finds in their bin is from another era, not least in the sense that it is a magazine and not a series of pixels searched for online. And as Mary and Jo (Katherine Pearce) read out sections from it, the whole thing is hilariously funny. It’s a bit Bridget Jones meets a Boots advert. Women with their neuroses and their weight problems; women with their fantasises about fast cars and sexy men; women doing what women do best: hogging the bathroom.
Then out of nowhere comes an extra ingredient to this gals-having-a-giggle picture. Sexual assault. This additional element of the femininity picture forces one to think: what’s the connection here? What links the manufacturing of pink washing-up gloves to the lack of safety for a woman trying to cycle home from work one evening? Nothing? Anything? Everything?
Low Level Panic isn’t a play that answers this question. Like the rows of hair products on the edge of the bath, it just cleverly displays a range of facts in a low-key manner and leaves the audience to make the deductions.
I found some deductions about the play far easier to make than others. Both Lesley McIntyre and David Edgar’s programme notes close by declaring the play to be “as relevant today as when she wrote it over 30 years ago” and that “the concerns of Low Level Panic… could not be more contemporary.” In some respects these claims are completely valid, particularly with regard to sexual violence. Yet in another way this particular production is almost too good at conjuring up a very specific historical moment. I write this from the perspective of someone born the same year that Low Level Panic debuted at the Royal Court (1988). I also write this from the perspective of someone who is female. Indeed, a ‘twenty-something female’ who might be presumed to identify with the twenty-something females on stage.
Only I didn’t. I thought the acting was superb and the production high quality (in general I really enjoyed it), but the depiction of the women left me struggling. To me, the play doesn’t feel unquestionably relevant to 2017; it feels evocative of a very specific era, a particular lifestyle and culture, and a particular way of thinking about femaleness. In some respects it is a very depressing picture of being female. A picture of internalised misogyny and capitalist ideals of beauty, and of reinforcing these beliefs to other female friends. When Mary is uncomfortable (literally and figuratively) about wearing a tight beige dress and patent stilettoes, it’s Jo who keeps insisting that she should, and she gets angry when Mary eventually dyes the dress another colour with the aim of partnering it with a sweatshirt. Except for Mary’s vocal protestations against this version of being a woman, there is no sustained active rejection of these ways of behaving. These are women who came after the 1960s, yet it’s unquestioned that part of Jo’s bath routine will include shaving her armpits.
Low Level Panic is a piece of theatre that feels ‘of its time’ in ways beyond its aesthetics. Whether or not the lived experience of being a woman has changed, the conversation around gender and sexuality very much has. The prominence of discussions around identity politics shows that our thinking on what ‘being a woman’ means has broadened and complexified.
Similarly, we’ve moved on from the idea that women should just accept sexism. True, you could still select endless depressing, regressive examples of sexist behaviour, but there are a lot of voices challenging them, too. If this play was made today by a young female playwright, it might well look very different – not just on the basic level of technological innovations, but also in that presenting three heterosexual women who all subscribe to fairly normative ideas of femininity feels simplistic set against the concerns of a new generation. We might not unquestionably be in a better place, but we’re certainly in a different place. A lot has changed in the last 29 years, and not just our taste in bathroom suites.
Low Level Panic is on at the Orange Tree Theatre until 25th March 2017. Click here for more details.