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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Lower Ninth
Donmar at Trafalgar Studios     Autumn 2010

Beau Willimon has come up with an excellent idea for a play, but not the excellent play itself.

Running just over an hour, Lower Ninth consists of three character sketches and some attempts at simple dialogue, pasted together without real coherence or continuity.

The effect is something like reading the author's notebooks for an uncompleted project, giving more of a sense of potential than of accomplishment.

Set in flooded New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina (the lower - i.e., below sea level - Ninth Ward was the most thoroughly destroyed part of town), the play finds two men and the dead body of a third stranded on the roof of a submerged house, waiting for rescue.

Over several days in the hot sun all three - the dead man will rise in what may be a dream sequence - will talk, argue, reminisce and tell us some things about themselves. And that's about it.

We get to know all three and the world they live in better, but there is little drama or forward movement, and only the deus ex machina prospect of rescue gives the play an ending.

The older man is a former gangster who has found religion and gone straight; the dead man is the current neighbourhood gang leader, who was inspired by the elder; and the younger living man idolises the dead man.

One senses, then, the ghost of a play about how the floods may have done a service by breaking a deadly cycle, but Willimon hasn't written that play.

He's more interested in the wary relations between the two living men, and their tentative connection, but those sequences are part of what gives the text its notebook feeling, since they play more like background information and filler than as the core of the action.

Given little more to work with than the character sketches, director Charlotte Westenra and her cast - Ray Fearon (elder), Anthony Welsh (younger) and Richie Campbell (body) - succeed in creating a strong sense of the three men and their backstories, but can't completely disguise the fact that there really isn't a play here.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review  of Lower Ninth - Trafalgar Studios 2010

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