Your first and lasting impression of this production has to be the space. The play takes place so aptly inside a huge office block, in a corporate quarter of London. We are seated on the first floor – a temporary set on an old trading floor, encircled by 4 or 5 floors of glass-fronted offices. Workers – real workers – can be seen at their desks and packing up for the day. Fifi Garfield, as ‘The Manager’, has her back to us at a large desk in a bright, clinical office. The site speaks at once of hierarchies, entrapment, of dizzyingly large corporations – all of which carry nicely into the themes of the play. But as I find is often the case with site-specifics, the production didn’t quite live up to the space.
The play starts well, with Garfield playing a purse-lipped, heartless Manager and Abigail Poulton as Emma, a new employee. Emma is summoned to the office, to be reminded of company policy: that no employee shall enter into a romantic relationship with a co-worker, without informing the management. The elaborate act is just a guise for testing the honesty of Emma. It takes three or four of these summonings before Emma is bullied into admitting that she has had a date with Mike, pressured into telling all of their intimate details.
And the story continues in a linear and similar fashion. Emma walks in and out of the office, the lights flicker to suggest the passing of night and day, their conversation begins with the same small-talk and goes on to discuss the development of her relationship with Mike. By the fifth or sixth time I was ready for something fresh and by the end I was thoroughly frustrated. Of course, the repetitive format captures accurately the ridiculous formalities and procedures seen in modern-day business, but I do not see the need for theatre to be so didactic.
The plot also becomes too far-fetched. The tone needs to be lighter if we are to get the ‘comedy’ side of the ‘Dark-comedy’ label. More of an invitation to the audience to see the hyperbole.
I did enjoy the playful use of communication, as they switch between British Sign Language (BSL), English, text and Powerpoints. For the most part, Garfield speaks with sign language and Poulton speaks and signs, but they switch it up now and again, intentionally cutting off members of the audience from an easy understanding. I felt a little apprehensive about how much I would be able to understand, as someone who doesn’t know BSL, but the expressive power of sign language is incredible. I suppose that the amount of repetition in the script is useful to facilitate both deaf and non-BSL readers understanding. It is very amusing when Garfield starts communicating by writing with marker pen and gesturing emphatically at her Powerpoint. The irony being that this is the way people communicate in the professional sphere, reducing people to statistics and line-graphs.
Overall, the play with language and communication was fascinating and clever, the acting was strong but the structure of the play far too repetitive for my enjoyment.
Contractions is playing at the New Diorama Theatre until 29th November. For more information and tickets, see www.newdiorama.com/whats-on/contractions