Writer: Mike Bartlett
Director: Georgia Brown
It is a breath of fresh air to see live theatre again, particularly when it is free from repetitious references to the pandemic, Covid-19 and isolation. Yet, there is no easy breathing in Contractions. It is a claustrophobic hour and fifteen about corporate tyranny.
Award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Mark Bartlett, originally wrote and broadcast this work as a BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Play. Whatstick Theatre have reimagined the two-hander, with an experimental new use of space, movement and music. The narrative follows Emma (Ele Robinson), a new salesperson repeatedly called into the office of the unnamed manager (Kate Gabriel), to be passive-aggressively interviewed about a suspected romantic relationship with her colleague Darren. It interrogates, with dark humour, the increasing intrusion of companies into their workers’ lives, with uncomfortable laughs you would get from The Office.
Gabriel and Robinson are equal in strength and grip and, with a bare stage except for their two chairs which face the audience, this is necessary because their performances are the play. Gabriel’s portrayal of the manager is unnerving, with chaotic facial expressions which accompany her shifting from polite chit chat to devastating threats. Robinson’s increasingly flushed, sweaty face says all a full set could about the suffocating environment. They play Emma’s downfall with wrenching frustration and grief.
The success of Contractions comes from its control. After the first repetition of the scene openings – “Emma, come in. How’s things?”, “Fine,” – there is a worry it will turn tiresome. For a moment it does. However, this works to cleverly lull you into the monotonous reality of the office environment. So, when it spirals into Emma digging up her own baby’s body, you neither question the plausibility of it being requested of her, nor her willingness to do it in order to save her job.
Director, Georgia Brown, does well to create an intimacy and complicity with the audience, with the actors facing the auditorium rather than one another. Unfortunately, when they are out of their seats, the production loses its way. Each office scene is separated by a cat-and-mouse style physical embodiment of their relationship. In the opening, the pair’s mirroring is out of time with each other and the music. In other moments it is clumsy, and its relevance lost. That being said, the digging scene is incredibly powerful.
Contractions may be extreme, nearly dystopian with its resemblances to Orwell’s 1984 and the capital of Collins’s The Hunger Games, but anyone who has missed a wedding or funeral for work, broke up a relationship, worked zero-hour contracts, or even feared rather than respected their management, will take something from this play. For we are all ‘politely’ reminded that unemployment is worse – to be a cog crushed by its machine, is better than to be no cog at all.
Runs until 19 June 2021