At the heart of Mike Bartlett's Contractions lies a fiercely jaundiced view of the contemporary workplace. Office salesperson Emma (Nicki Rochford) finds herself gradually entwined in a net, its strands composed of manipulation, desperation, intrusion and plain fear. Called by her nameless manager (Dee Thompson) to a seemingly routine progress evaluation, she discovers that the lines between private and professional concerns are blurred all the way to vanishing point as the manager invokes the small print of Emma's employment contract -
No employee... shall engage with any other employee.... in any relationship which can be characterised as romantic or sexual without informing the management
- vis à vis her getting up close and personal with one Darren, an unseen colleague.
Thomford Theatre's set consists of a couple of office chairs and a folder-strewn table. In a past production I've seen of this play, effective use was made of electronic music and abrupt lighting switches to heighten the increasingly sinister atmosphere in the meeting room. Here, the spectators are compelled to focus solely on the playing of its two actors; Dee Thompson's manager, her frequent smile barely reaching to the corners of her mouth and never to her eyes, is cunningly played as a practised tormentor, full of insinuation dressed up as seeking after good business ethics as she talks of the company's 'monitoring' Emma's relationship. The tone of her voice never rises above the suave and measured. I found her playing of the rôle horribly plausible, even if Bartlett's progressive switch from sober analysis of the increased demands on its employees by an overweening employer ventured increasingly into the realms of the surreal; and Thompson's imaginative use at one point of her biro was a little gem!
By all means inject downbeat humour into the script, but the dramatist seems to me to want both to have his cake and eat it: to desire his material to be taken as drama-documentary while at the same time piling on pretty broad, satirical flights of fancy that latterly extend to the surreal. Such an aim, though tricky to pull off, is perfectly feasible, but in this case it can be argued that Bartlett's surrealism ends up somewhat marring the credibility of the naturalistic social comment.
As the increasingly harassed Emma, it could be argued that of the two actors, Nicki Rochford has the slightly more difficult part as she strives to loosen the Gordian knot binding the most intimate corners of her life to her overseer and the company's procedures. Although I might have desired once or twice a little more variation of voice in her delivery of the repetitive elements of the dialogue, she manages nicely the transition from compliant underling via puzzlement to outraged resistance
Manager: "You put your tongue in his mouth!"
Emma; "I wouldn't necessarily say that was a romantic action!"
- and this audience shared her sense of disbelief at her predicament.
Thomford next week take this gripping squib up to Edinburgh and should prosper there.