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A disturbing worldview undercut by patchy acting

It takes me a while but about halfway through the play I recognise the pun in the title—contract, contractions, pregnancy—and it makes me chuckle slightly inappropriately. Written by Mike Bartlett for the Royal Court Theatre in 2008, Contractions is part of a tradition of plays that aim to provoke questions and to perturb the audience. The play explores the extent to which a company is entitled to invade the privacy and regulate the personal lives of their employees. Undergoing a process of what I can only term the bureaucratisation of romance the plot unfolds through a series of meetings between the unnamed Manager, played by Cat White, and employee Emma, played by Sophie Stiewe.

Walking into the studio, I was immediately struck by the layout of the space. There is no raised stage and the play unfolds between two banks of seats set up to face each other. It is a fitting set-up for a play about invasion of privacy, and as the audience watch it unfold we are made aware that we are not only watching, but that we are also being watched.

The minimalist staging is reminiscent of Lisa Blair’s 2016 production of Contractions in Sheffield, but sadly this production falls short of the sterile sleekness that Blair’s production achieved. Linden Hogarth’s (the set designer) decision to use a backdrop made out of a cardboard cut-out city-scape detracts from the professional polish achieved in the rest of the set, and White’s costume is, unfortunately, in need of an iron. However, the attention to detail that has evidently gone into matching the blue and black biros on the desk to the blue and black outfit the manager wears is impressive. It is this attention to detail, along with the decision to have White remain on stage between scenes, which adds to the sense that the Manager is so assimilated into the company that she is practically part of its material fabric.

The strong overhead lighting fits with the themes of exposure in the play, and shines not only on the stage but also partly on the audience, heightening the sense that we too are being observed. The production encounters some technical problems halfway through the play, as the dull purple lighting that has, up until this point, been used between scenes fails to turn on, but this difficulty can be attributed to first night hiccups.

The intimate two-person cast means that the roles are highly demanding. I enjoy White’s portrayal of the Manager; she achieves a mechanic sterility in her acting that is fitting to the role. The frank and indifferent way in which White poses increasingly personal questions to Stiewe’s character hovers between funny and disturbing, and at many points throughout the night provokes uncomfortable laughter from the audience. Stiewe’s portrayal of Emma, is, however, a little disappointing. Stiewe’s character has the potential to provide some counter-balance to the sterility of the Manager, and yet I found myself getting frustrated by the repetitive nature of her facial expressions and tone of voice. If this formulaic portrayal of emotion was a conscious choice on the part of Stiewe and director Lisa Friedrich then I think they may have missed an opportunity to imbue the play with a little more tension. The acting is, overall, a little haphazard, with both White and Stiewe stumbling over their lines on a few different occasions. However, this can again be attributed to first night nerves, and didn’t have too much of an impact on the quality of their performances.

Overall, I am left underwhelmed by this play, which has the potential to offer a perturbing and nuanced exploration of the nature of the corporate world. Although the set design and stage layout are promising, the slightly-inconsistent acting and the absence of tension between White and Stiewe mean that for me the play fails to provide the discomfort that a title like Contractions promises. To sum up the experience in a word: ‘flat’.

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