Charlotte Lennon is thoroughly chilled by some impressive female performances in Bartlett’s vision of a disturbing dystopian workplace.
You have to admire this cast and crew’s commitment. All finalists, and having only finished their exams a week ago, instead of indulging themselves with a Pimms drenched fortnight of lazing in the sun, they’re putting on a play. Furthermore, the play that they have selected is in no way reflective of the euphoria they must no doubt be experiencing – it’s Mike Bartlett’s Contractions, and it’s pretty heavy stuff. Originally written for radio, the text deals with an increasing invasion of large corporations in to their employee’s private lives. A female manager begins to make enquiries into the nature of a relationship between two co-workers.
At first, it’s all rather comic, and watching the two female characters discuss what exactly defines a “romantic” or “sexual” relationship is mildly discomforting, but for the most part amusingly awkward. Things soon take a sinister turn when the company gradually begins to heartlessly manipulate every aspect of Emma’s life, and ruthlessly destroy all that she holds dear.
The play features only two actresses, and both parts are demanding. Lucy Fyffe has the task of creating the calculated, emotionless persona of the Manager, and she excels. She is softly sinister, and watching her terrorise Emma while smiling calmly throughout was a distinctly chilling experience. Fyffe does well to highlight the absurdity of the situation, but her controlled performance lends the whole thing a disturbing realism. Charlotte Salkind also gives a decent performance as harangued office worker Emma, vehemently resentful of the Manager’s interference with her personal life, but powerless to stop her given the current economic climate. The greatest challenge for Salkind is Emma’s metamorphosis from irritated and disbelieving to decidedly unhinged. This is done very well, and I am sure that the transformation will become even more nuanced as the rehearsal process continues, thereby rendering it all the more effective.
The direction I witnessed was good, but the play rests primarily on character, and it is the two actresses who must carry the piece. The largest directorial issue will be retaining audience interest given that the entire play takes place in a single room, with nothing but a desk and office chair (I’ve been shown pictures of the set, and in all fairness a lot of effort appears to have been put in to selecting the perfect dystopian office furniture). Again, it is the responsibility of the two actresses to ensure their performance stays strong and engaging without appearing contrived – though from what I saw, there should be no problems there.
Contractions might not be to everyone’s taste, but I would urge those keen to see some decent, dark comedy, perfectly situated in the Burton Taylor Studio, to go. The acting is sublime, and the atmosphere of gentle menace created is profoundly unsettling.
Five stars *****