With minimalistic set and lighting designs, Contractions relies on the strong performances of the two leads and Mike Bartlett’s darkly humorous script to create a thoroughly engaging, enjoyable narrative regarding individual privacy and freedom in the corporate world.
For the entire play, the set consists of little more than two desks, set up in a way that presents the audience with the perspectives of both Emma (Sophie Walton) and the Manager (Kate Maguire). This innovative arrangement creates a split view that is at once unsettling and amusing, particularly when compounded by the characters’ synced movements. Furthermore, it allows the audience to better observe the actresses’ facial expressions and gestures, who take full advantage of the intimate studio space to establish a nuanced, captivating portrayal of their respective characters.
“Walton lends a defiant streak to the relatable Emma”
From the very start, Maguire’s Manager is impeccable, conveying a condescension (with an underlying malevolence) without this ever being explicitly acknowledged. Every head tilt and voice lilt, every pursing of the lips or furrow of the brow, is executed superbly, constructing a demeanour that is aloof yet concerned – a consciously polite façade. On the other hand, Walton lends a defiant streak to the relatable Emma, who is at first baffled by the company’s policies, but quickly learns to challenge these regulations on their own terms.
“The story soon descends from this comical dynamic into more disconcerting territory”
Things start off in a light-hearted, albeit absurd, tone, extrapolating the pervasiveness of corporate policy as Emma and the Manager negotiate the definition of sexual and romantic relationships, as well as debate what is obligated to be disclosed and what is simply ‘small talk’.
However, the story soon descends from this comical dynamic into more disconcerting territory, as Emma (along with the audience) gradually realizes the Orwellian extent of the company’s monitoring, as well as the sacrifices that employees are expected to make. Near the end, Walton gives an emotionally affecting performance, introducing a sense of vulnerability without sacrificing her character’s fierce individuality. Her acting abilities draw in the audience to stand with her even as she is breaking down – a process effectively complemented by subtle changes in her hair and makeup. Maguire remains delightfully composed as the Manager, her mask of superficial cordiality only cracking at times to expose a callous, threatening figure.
“The final production is a skilful blend of absurdist comedy and macabre drama”
Bartlett’s script is extremely well written, creating and maintaining a momentum that is carried on until the end of the play. Under the direction of Andrew Houghton and the production of Miguel Barrulas, the rapid-fire exchanges and repetition of phrases are brought to life as entertaining, almost rhythmic dialogue.
Credit should also be given to Oliver Kueck and Joanne Blunt for utilizing the lighting to initiate quick, efficient scene changes, preventing the play from dragging. The final production is a skilful blend of absurdist comedy and macabre drama; and although there were one or two minor mistakes made over the lines, they were barely noticeable and simply did not detract from the audience’s enjoyment or investment in the already-engaging performances.
“The performance seems to be over almost too soon”
The closing scene is a haunting culmination, perhaps encapsulating the best aspects of this play. I do not want to give away too much, but suffice to say that, from the final brilliant utilization of the split view, to the final flick of the lamp’s switch, the performance seems to be over almost too soon, leaving the audience with a harrowing, profound feeling, and an uncomfortable sense of closure.
8/10 – Excellent, highly enjoyable
Yee Heng Yeh
Image courtesy of the Nottingham New Theatre
‘Contractions’ is running at the Nottingham New Theatre until Tuesday 15th of November. For more information and where to find tickets see here.