Director: Lisa Blair
Writer: Mike Bartlett
Designer: Fly Davis
Composer: Giles Thomas
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
While Mike Bartlett’s latest theatrical adventure, Wild, is causing a stir at London’s Hampstead Theatre, 160 miles north, Sheffield Theatres has revived one of his earlier plays, Contractions. Originally a radio play, it was adapted for the stage at the Royal Court in 2008. The themes of the play seem even more pertinent today than eight years ago.
Emma thinks she is in love. Her employer thinks she is in breach of her contract, which forbids romantic relationships between staff members. To enforce this ruling it monitors almost every aspect of its employees’ behavior with a level of scrutiny Big Brother would envy, or might provide a handbook for the HR team at Sports Direct. As her anonymous employer makes increasing demands for compliance, Emma’s willpower, dignity, self-belief, and identity are gradually stripped from her.
The play is a two-hander between Emma and her nameless Manager. In a series of brief scenes, we track the progress of Emma’s workplace romance through the Company’s increasing scrutiny and intrusion into the most private areas of her life. “How was the sex?” she is asked after admitting to a relationship with a work colleague. Her answer is logged on a spreadsheet to determine the seriousness of the relationship.
Mike Bartlett has a wonderful ear for dialogue and a better one for silence; as much happens between the lines of the script, as during them. The weight of these pauses is perfection. Bartlett also knows how to undercut a moment of surreal absurdity, with one of chilling cruelty, calling for excellent comic timing and emotional control from the actors. Subtlety and understatement are also essential to elicit the menace from the mundane. Ticks in all boxes.
Both actresses, Sara Stewart as the Manager and Rose Leslie as Emma, are compelling in their interpretation of the roles. Leslie’s part calls for the greater emotional vocabulary as she takes us on Emma’s journey from hope, through despair to submission, and she absolutely nails each element. Sara Stewart has arguably the harder part: As the stony-hearted company clone who politely puts Emma on the corporate rack, she is pure Baked Alaska: Surface warmth with a heart of ice. Only the occasional raised eyebrow or the merest hint of a sneer troubles her well-starched surface.
The Studio setting is ideal for such a close-up-and-personal encounter between two combatants, the audience close enough to hear every breath and sigh. In a clever piece of staging, the cockpit stage is on a slow revolve so the psychological warfare is in three, rather than two dimensions. Everything else was kept – rightly – as simple as possible. It could even have happily done without the music between scenes. The blackout transitions are so swift and clean that the filling added little.
The play marks Lisa Blair’s professional debut as a director. She is off to a flying start.
Runs until 16 July 2016 | Image: Marc Brenner