Contractions; North of Providence

Mike Bartlett (Contractions); Edward Allan Baker (North of Providence)

Play with Fire

53two (pod), Manchester

From 26 July 2017 to 29 July 2017

Review by Martin Thomasson

Since Manchester’s much loved 24:7 festival fell victim to funding cuts, GM Fringe has become the chief flag-bearer for fringe theatre in the city. Throughout July, it offers a wide range of productions, quality and ambition you might expect from such a venture, staged in venues often intimate, and more than occasionally rugged. In other words, standard fare to the committed fringe-goer. Good on it!

Tonight’s double bill is served up in the pod at 53two (a sparse but largely successful adaptation of archway space under a tram route).

You’d struggle to find a point of contact between this evening's two short plays, beyond the bare fact that they are both two-handers. However, this ensures variety in an entertaining 90-minute show (including a 15-minute interval).

One of Mike Bartlett’s strengths is the ability to create plays out of ‘what ifs?’ (Hence, the roaring success of King Charles III). He can, however, struggle sustaining wit and constructing rounded characters. The strength and the weakneses are evident in Contractions—effectively a reductio ad absurdum of the way corporate employers increasingly seek to invade and control their employees’ private lives.

Emma, newly in post, is called into her manager’s office for an interview. Her attention is drawn to a clause in her contract of employment—a clause requiring all employees to inform management of any interaction between colleagues which might be deemed an attempt to ‘perpetrate’ a romantic relationship. Company policy prohibits such relationships—they are a threat to productivity.

When she denies any such encounter, her manager reads from her colleague, Darren’s account of going for dinner with Emma—an event which, tellingly, involved a candle on the table. Emma, holding her own in the joust, asserts that neither this nor the hand on Darren’s thigh, nor the parting kiss (beginning on the cheek but closing with the mutual engagement of tongues) signals her desire for a relationship, merely her wish to have sex (without the relationship).

Her manager satisfied, for the present, Emma is allowed to depart, only to return moments later for the next scene. The play is a series of such interviews, each one intrusively scrutinising the developing relationship (yes, relationship) between Emma and Darren. The manager checks her notes, comparing Emma’s account with what Darren reported (often with amusing pay-offs).

“How many times did you have sex?”

“Four.”

“Hmmm…he says five.”

Things take a darker turn when Emma, having fallen pregnant, reneges on her earlier committment that the relationship would not endure beyond six months (a figure that was itself a managerial compromise between Emma’s prediction of 12 months and Darren’s ‘a few weeks’). Even though the couple agree to separate, according the company’s definition of an ongoing sexual relationship, the very existence of their child constitutes a breach of policy. Darren is transferred abroad—after which the absurdum really kicks in (you’ll spot it, when it happens).

By the end, Emma’s only recourse is to become the soulless yet efficient cog the company requires her to be—such is her desperate need for a job.

In the early interviews, the audience quickly gets the joke and there are plenty of laughs. However, the darker shift starts to labour the point, rather than driving it home. Much of this is down to the limitations of the writing—it isn’t that Bartlett lacks humour, but he lacks the inventive wit of a Shaw (George Bernard) or even a Bennett (Alan). Neither do his characters fly off the page. Amy du Quesne works hard to take us on a desperate emotional slalom, as Emma degenerates from feisty newcomer to desperate mother to bloodless corporate corpuscle, but the script offers her little support in this.

Opposite her, Clare Cameron gives an equally womanly performance, though permitted even less to work with. The manager, who explicitly witholds her actual name (it’s “not relevant”) presents a conundrum for actor and director (Sam Redway)—was she always perfect for this job (a human being only in the biological sense), or has the job made her the amoral, pitiless operative we see? If the former, she’s almost impossible to act. If the latter, where lies her hinterland?

Apart from one brief moment, when she checks her mobile between scenes, there is not the slightest hint. Keeping your actor rooted to her seat may suggest detachment but, alongside a script that offers her nothing in the way of subtext, risks leaving her to play a cipher. Cameron does well with what little she’s allowed—but how much more, even slightly unleashed, might she have shown in those cramped spaces between scenes?

North of Providence has all the frustrated energy of the angry young man’s play it so clearly is. Hannah Ellis Ryan and James Oates throw themselves into a raging brother/sister exchange. Even at breakneck speed and on top note, Ellis Ryan and Oates are good shouters; their diction clear enough for us to follow most of what is going on. I just wish director Daniel Bradford would trust his gifted actors to simmer and seethe a little. This talented pair have it in them, believe me.

Carol (Ellis Ryan) is on an urgent mission. Her alcoholic father is at the point of death (cirrhosis?) and she needs to get her good-for-nothing brother, Bobbie, to the hosptial to say goodbye to him. Bobbie (James Oates) has heard it all before. He won’t believe their father actually has one foot across death’s threshold (or is he in denial?).

Bobbie and Carol used to be close—like “Donny and Marie 'cept we can’t sing." (younger readers, google "The Osmonds"). While Carol has married and built a life away from this crumbling family, Bobbie not only lives at home, he sleeps a few feet away from his father (witnees the empty unmade bed, almost within touching distance, empty bottles of alcohol to hand).

At one time, Carol was her father’s favourite, his "Miss America". One terrible night, when the sixteen-year-old Carol was out baby-sitting, an intruder raped her and left her for dead. Bobbie, who was meant to be there with her but never arrived, has avoided her ever since. That night, Carol tells him, “I lost my virginity and my brother.”

Carol at last gives up on the thieving Bobbie but, as she is about to leave, he reveals to her the burden he has carried since the night of that dreadful attack. It is at this moment of dark revelation combined with sisterly tenderness, that the play ends. One is tempted to say to the young Edward Allan, "this is starting to look promising; go home and finish it."

When the script runs out, we are left with some insight into why this family fell apart, and why Bobbie has become the shifltess, small-time crook, clinging childishly to dreams of a lottery win. What the piece really lacks is an understanding of the central victim, Carol. We may admire that she has built a new life, despite the horrific attack and rejection from a father, who deemed her ‘ruined’, and a beloved brother who simply turned his back (for reasons she at last knows). However, this impressive salvation is glibly attributed to a talking cure, thanks to which the nightmare, “went thin and then went away.” Surely, more is needed?

As noted, there is a lot of angry shouting and a little violence (one cannot but warm to a production that uses Frosties as an assault weapon). Plausible though the rage is, much of it would play more effectively chained and caged. It is in the rare quiet moments that these two actors show their craft best. We need more of these.

There are times as a reviewer when I find myself in the strange position of leaning hard on a performer (or a company) not because I don’t rate them, but because I do—and want them to do better. As with a previous production (Sans Merci), Play with Fire needs to learn when to turn down the heat and when to bring things to the boil. If they can master that skill, I suspect they’ll have some very fine dining to offer on future menus.

Would I pay to see their next production? Without question.