Mike Bartlett’s black comedy Contractions causes the audience to squirm on the edge of their seats as the boundaries between work and play are brought under the spotlight and become uncomfortably close for comfort. Charlotte Marshall was in the first night audience at the Royal Court.
A two man play, the story centres on the dynamic between Emma (Anna Madeley) and her controlling manager. When her boss feels that she might be crossing professional boundaries with a personal relationship at work she calls Emma in to remind her of the strict definition of romantic relationships in the contract she signed. In a series of meetings, the pair enter into increasingly twisted verbal exchanges as Emma realises she can have no secrets in a company that would give Orwell’s Big Brother a run for its money. As her relationship becomes entirely dictated by the company, Emma’s claustrophobia is bought to a chilling climax as she realises she is trapped in a job that has destroyed her whole existence.
Set backstage in a conference room, as you enter the space and take an office chair set up around the edge of the room, you are automatically drawn into the characters’ world in an up close and personal atmosphere, far more intimate than the conventional theatre experience. Julia Davis, in the role of the manager, sits calm and collected behind a desk. Emotionally manipulative and a pro at methods of gaining control, her soft therapist-like voice grows increasing disconcerting as her demands become more sinister and outrageous. Emma’s reaction to her is at first that of an intelligent sane woman, fully aware of the ridiculousness of the situation and willing to stand up for herself, but after one meeting too many she is beaten down into an emotional wreck before eventually becoming the brainwashed clone with nothing left to live for but her sales figures, just as the manager had desired.
Bartlett’s play not only tests the boundaries of how far we would allow ourselves to be controlled, but also the boundaries of our humour. As the play progresses the audience begins to feel a similar anxiousness to Emma, as we question at what point it is still okay to laugh when the light-hearted nature of the comedy is revealed to be something much darker indeed.
Contractions runs until 14 June at the Royal Court.