In the middle of one of the many conversations between Jo (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and Harry (Rufus Wright) that tread an impossibly fine line between needling argument and verbal foreplay, Jo’s mobile phone goes off. The ringtone is familiar but not quite identifiable, moments later, before the chorus kicks in, Jo answers the phone with ‘Hi Mum’ and at the same moment you realise that she has set the ring tone to be I Touch Myself by the DiVinyls.
Vicky Jones’ The One is a play that is peppered with jokes that rely on an audience with an eye for high and low cultural reference points and a penchant for filthy dialogue. It is as comfortable expounding on Madame Bovary as it is in displaying the realities of unengaged sex. There are some brutally funny lines in The One and there also some just plain brutal ones. It is a play that sets out to shock its audience and it more than succeeds in doing so.
DryWrite, the theatre company created by Vicky Jones and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, was the force behind two of the most unexpected treats of 2013, Mydidae and Fleabag. With The One this creative partnership have created a trio of plays that, while formally unconnected, work together to create a portrait of dysfunction within a certain strata of well-educated, middle class women in 21st century Britain. As a whole they form a serious and important contribution to the ongoing cultural debate about whether there are ways that women should live and behave in the context of feminism as being something that had been ‘won’.
Waller-Bridge excels in each of the plays. She inhabits characters that clearly show the challenges of women who have grown up to believe in the freedoms hard won by their parents but struggle to shape an identity for themselves in a society that is still undeniably masculine. At the heart of Mydidae and The One is the presence of a formidably intelligent woman who self-censures herself in order to maintain the fantasy of the dominant male. In both cases the self-censuring has a warping effect and the emasculating quality of the action (even as it seeks to avoid this very outcome) ultimately leads to displays of violence; physical, sexual and emotional.
The One demonstrates writing of exceptional quality and Jones’ displays a real talent for carving heightened language out of the banality of the everyday; creating prose that is grounded in reality whilst seeming disturbingly unreal. That the play is set over the course of the evening and scenes are intercut with Phantom of the Opera’s The Music of the Night adds to the sensation that is closer to nightmarish dreamscape than the real world.
Yet this is no Athenian forest and here there is no honest Puck to make amends and to ensure that Jo and Harry ‘think no more of this night’s accidents’. Rather than sleep and awake to a new dawn, they continue their conversations until sunrise when they are forced to look at each other in the harsh light of day.
The performances from Waller-Bridge and Lu Corfield (Kerry) are strong. Corfield finds an impressive depth to a role that risks being swallowed by passivity in the face of Jo and Harry’s natural charisma. She brings a subtlety that draws out the idea that Kerry is equally capable of playing manipulative games. Kerry carefully shapes herself as the light to Jo’s shadow and we are naturally drawn to her in the face of the monstrous treatment that she is subjected to. However her honesty is carefully honed to undermine Jo in Harry’s eyes and provides a mask for her own questionable actions.
Rufus Wright’s Harry is solid but never quite convinces as an English professor and it doesn’t quite fit that Jo, even as an impressionable student, would have felt that he had the verve to sustain her intellectually. However the fault is less with Wright’s performance than as the place where the cracks in The One begin to become noticeable. The dialogue may be first rate but structurally the play is problematic; it tries so hard to be provocative that it forces its characters to take decisions that do not make sense within the play’s internal logic. Wright’s main problem is that the role of Harry eventually buckles under the weight of the inconsistencies.
The major problem concerns the through line of implicit and explicit violence directed towards women. This is a serious issue and the play throws up some scenarios that are uncomfortable because they grounded in the reality of the everyday. Kerry speaks of being raped in her relationship whether or not ‘no’ was made explicit whereas sex for Jo and Harry is used as another weapon in their emotional warfare. When The One is taking on these issues it is disconcerting and difficult to watch. It is provocative with purpose.
However it is when the violence moves from the theoretical to the actual that problems emerge; whilst it is believable that Harry, clearly emotionally stunted and emasculated intellectually through his relationship, may become physically abusive, the play glosses over the role Jo plays in encouraging this behaviour. The default position seems to be that this is a seriously dysfunctional relationship and anything goes, but nothing is presented to allow the audience to understand this.
Jo is clearly a well-educated, empowered and self-confident woman (or at least presents this appearance), endowed with a rapier sharp wit and the air of entitlement that comes with knowing yourself as an attractive, intelligent, self-possessed woman from a relatively stable middle-class family.There is nothing to suggest, and we are given no reason to understand, why Jo may wish to facilitate not just a self-destructive relationship but one that plays out domestic abuse and proposed abuse fantasies.
It is arguably the case that the vast majority of women who exhibit these characteristics are not like Jo. The character we see on stage appears to exist for the sole purpose of airing potentially shocking statements and not to shine a light on a wider issues around psychological or physical abuse within relationships.
The play is too rooted in its naturalism to allow this action to pass unremarked. When Ibsen created Nora Torvald or Hedda Gabbler, he was creating landmark female characters that shocked society because he was reflecting a world that existed but that had been refused to be recognised. Vicky Jones uses reflections more commonly found in a carnival’s hall of mirrors, it is reality recognisable only through grotesque distortions. These people may well exist but they do not reflect society. It may be well meaning but it cannot be used to argue that the play contains truths that can be applied to the wider world.
The One is the work of an extremely talented writer and is matched by another superb performance from Waller-Bridge, an actor whose career is showing every sign of going stratospheric once fitted into the right high-profile role, however the unexplained motivation behind the characters ultimately means it hasn’t earned the right to be so daring.
Theatre should not be boring but provocation should always have a point.
Read the (generally) rave review for The One elsewhere
Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph
Alex Delaney at Fourth Wall
Victoria Sadler at The Huffington Post
Stewart Pringle in Exeunt