Review – Contractions – TheatreDelicatessen at an office near Bond Street

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Mike Bartlett is still riding high in my book after last year’s Cock, so I didn’t hesitate when I saw many and various tweets about the production of Contractions Chris Adams was directing. Bartlett is a master of modern speech and has a deeply penetrating understanding of the quirky underpinnings of human interaction in this day and age. I was more excited to see that it was going to be done in a Real Life Office (or an office building, anyway), but the schedule was a bitch: one week only, and I was out of town for two of those days …. and had shows booked for the rest. Shit! What to do?

An answer suggested itself in the form of something that turned out to be frighteningly in keeping with the play itself: take a very long lunch and go to the matinee. After all, it was in central London: it should be doable. And it was at 1PM. And, er, a friend was going. So I decided to be daring and booked myself for a lunchtime viewing. Ooh! It felt so naughty!

I arrived at the location and found a fortunately clearly signed building (not being clever like Accomplice and pretending to actually be a business but with nice “Theatre Delicatessen” signs plastered outside). Upon arrival, I was given an envelope telling me that my presence was required at a personnel meeting regarding an urgent matter … clearly NOT on my company’s stationery. I was then escorted into a open room with about forty other people in it that had every bit of the feeling of a typical staffing cattle call. What with the nerves caused by skiving, I got quite the nice frisson by the atmosphere (and an even better one from seeing my friend Ian saving me a chair – always better to face the music together!).

We were then escorted upstairs and into a long room with a desk and a single chair in the middle, and four rows of low-quality office type chairs (mine was blue plastic) on both sides, elevated a bit to enable views of the stages (such as it was). The blueish lights shone from over head; the sunlight and noises of London business life came in from the windows. We were at work, as if behind observation glass, and Emma (Holly Beth Morgan), a new employee, walked in the door to sit down in front of her manager (Abigail Rokison) to discuss how her job was going.

Things seemed to be going fine; Emma seemed a cheerful, high-performing employee, who cheerfully bantered about the various details of her first short weeks on the job. But somehow her manager didn’t seem satisfied; she asked leading questions about her behaviour, cut her short with glares and tight smiles, and generally gave the impression that something was not quite right, without saying exactly what.

Over the course of the next forty or so minutes, Emma returned again and again for meetings with her (never named) manager, discussing and justifying her behavior, being torn to bits for nothing, making more and more outrageous attempts to please her manager and the company behemoth that stood behind her, in a world that slowly came to seem like the most perfect example of an uncaring office dystopia I’ve ever seen on stage – certainly right up there with Brazil and Gattaca, only with a much more familiar whiff of this could be just a few years away. The pressure starts to get to Emma after a while, and, well, it just went places I never imagined.

All of this was, of course, done in the thoroughly realistic and psychologically note-perfect words of Bartlett, who handled the interplay between the two women like a sushi chef battling fatty tuna. Morgan really managed to keep Emma’s evolution on track; Rokison, with the more difficult and less sympathetic role, kept the pressure on and handled every word and action with the unflinching falseness of someone being paid to pretend they care about a worker as a human being when truly they are “headcount.”

It was an intense, fast trip and, when the lights came down after Emma’s last exit, I have to say I was a bit relieved. It had all hit very close to home; after all, it’s not the Scissor-Man that keeps most of us up with stomach cramps and high blood pressure; it’s those close to us: parents, partners … our bosses – the people that can really make our daily lives a horror. And this was a tale of horror right up there with anything Poe or Lovecraft would crank out, a horror story of modern working life. I was happy to burst back into the sunshine, but unable to escape my nagging sense of guilt to rush back to my desk and return to being a perfect little worker bee. After all, you never know who is watching.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, October 27th. Contractions continues through October 30th, 2010 and may already be sold out. Good luck getting a ticket! For an alternate take, please see Ian Foster’s review.)

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One Response to “Review – Contractions – TheatreDelicatessen at an office near Bond Street”

  1. Mini-review – Bull – Young Vic | Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl's London theatre reviews Says:

    […] forte, to me, is correctly capturing how people think and behave now, in the modern world (Contractions being another one in this vein). He’s especially talented at showing how people lie to […]

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