We often complain that work takes over our lives. But just how far into your personal life would you let your employer intrude? That’s the question posed by Contractions, an acclaimed and comparatively recent play that taps into many of the anxieties of our modern age. Presented as a series of interviews between a young saleswoman and her matronly female manager, it paints an alarming picture of a world without boundaries: a world where big business, in the name of professionalism and impartiality, can control and then crush an employee’s life.
There are two or three important messages here – about surveillance, manipulation, and a woman’s right to control her own body – but there’s also a great deal of enjoyable humour built into the earlier scenes. Much of the comedy stems from a rigorous, ridiculous application of corporate policy to that most human of processes, falling in love. As she fills in the forms – “how would you rate the sex, out of 10?” – Emma’s manager seems both entirely businesslike and completely crass.
To match the sharp script, the company deliver a slick, stylish production. The set is clinical, but not without elegance, perfectly capturing the measured uniformity of a faceless multi-national. A glowing iPad shines through the blackouts. Leisurely scene changes add some calmness and thoughtfulness to a generally intense script, and the nuts and bolts of the performance are superb too; each prop is handled impeccably, each exit and entrance perfectly timed.
But of course, it’s the two performers who truly make this play. Sally C Davis is disturbingly believable as Emma, who begins as a strong and confident woman but is reduced to wretchedness by the final curtain. Janette Eddisford, meanwhile, has fun in her role as the nameless manager: her false smiles and feigned concern hide a hint of underlying malevolence, which grows ever stronger from scene to scene. There’s an exactitude to Ralf Higgins’ direction, as well, which perfectly reflects the tone of the dialogue; between each scene and the next, Eddisford rearranges the sparse contents of her desk, each pen and each gadget precisely aligned.
I can’t shake the feeling, though, that something in the script is a little askew. Playwright Mike Bartlett pulls a classic absurdist trick: starting with a situation that’s just about believable, then building on it, step by reasonable step, to arrive at an outlandish conclusion. But I couldn’t quite go along with it; couldn’t entirely quieten that part of my brain which knows this scenario is implausible in the real world. The problem may lie with the highly episodic structure, which offers a few too many opportunities for doubts to creep in.
In the end, though, that doesn’t really matter. Contractions is an elegant production, which combines disturbing themes with clever, meticulous delivery. The end result is impressive in itself… but like a clockwork toy or a beautiful watch, there’s a lot of pleasure in watching the gears move, too.