Mike Bartlett’s challenging Contractions got a mesmeric, triumphant production from whatstick theatre

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mark Bartlett’s Contractions: Filmed by Jessye Curtis and Alexander Masika-Ferguson (edited by Kai Cook) at the Etcetera Theatre, Camden, in June 2021 and reviewed when streamed on 4.7.2021. (JPr)

Kate Gabriel (The Manager) and Ele Robinson (Emma)

Director – Georgia Brown
Original Music – Rachael Gibson

Emma – Ele Robinson
The Manager – Kate Gabriel

The enterprising whatstick theatre was founded in Manchester last year by Georgia Brown and Sean McGettigan and aims to open up ‘fresh and playful perspectives on the world we live in through innovative contemporary work with new/live music and its audience at its centre’. Because of their backgrounds in live music, they ‘are passionate about telling stories that feel urgent through sound and movement’. They are rightly proud of ISOLATE, their project during the first lockdown, when the company collaborated with 39 composers and visual artists to create a series of audio-visual installations based on public responses to the pandemic (click here), which was later commended by the BFI.

Mark Bartlett’s Contractions is a female two-hander that began as a short BBC Radio 4 drama entitled Love Contract before being first put on in 2008 at London’s Royal Court. It is Bartlett’s response to the early twentieth century which saw the ‘Personnel Department’ become ‘Human Resources’ who – depending on your opinion of course – have had an increasing (frequently negative?) impact on employer/employee relations ever since.

There are a dozen or more encounters between Emma, an apparently successful sales representative for an anonymous company, and her boss who we only know as ‘The Manager’. They all begin ‘Emma come in, sit down, how are things?’. On a dark stage Georgia Brown just uses a battered chair and a stool and an Amazon(!) delivery box which will become disturbingly symbolic of the absurdist turn Bartlett’s satire takes in its closing stages. This short revival was nearly overtaken by events particularly when you hear this line from The Manager, ‘The whole building is monitored for safety and fair practice at work’. This would of course include two people caught in a clinch in a government office and breaking social distancing guidance!

It is a relationship that is central to Contractions and the title itself has a double meaning that evolves in a little over an hour, with the initial emphasis being on the contract Emma has signed; though in truth does anyone ever take note of all the fine print that they are supposed to have acknowledged. Importantly it includes how ‘No employee […] shall engage with any other employee […] in any relationship, activity or act […] which could be characterised as romantic or sexual without notifying the company.’

Brown’s mesmeric staging introduces us to the characters at the start through mime and to Rachel Brown’s typical twenty-first century restless, perpetuum mobile, minimalist music. The Manager and Emma (wearing plain overalls) seemed trapped in their own world (their working environment?). During successive interludes between the interviews (with both seated facing out to the audience) the silent, often mirrored, movement will find the two circling each other with Emma trying to avoid being caught out, as well as showing The Manager’s gloating and Emma’s increasing distress and her declining mental health.

Kate Gabriel (The Manager) and Ele Robinson (Emma)

It is clear at the start that there are no worries about Emma’s overall performance, it is just her personal life that is causing concern as she apparently gets embroiled in a relationship with her co-worker Darren without making this known. Initially Emma and her superior spar amusingly over the letter of the law and whether what she and Darren are getting up to could actually be defined as ‘romantic’. However, it seems he cannot keep his mouth shut and the intrusion in their private lives soon hinges – to The Manager’s obvious glee – on Darren’s assessment that their sex was ‘excellent’ while Emma suggested it was merely ‘good’. Soon Darren will be dispatched to work in Kiev, leaving Emma literally holding the baby. I will avoid spoilers here but add that the play loses touch with reality but is heart-wrenching in its depiction of how far Emma will abase herself in order to keep her job. Something that I suspect is sadly not unusual in the workplaces of the 2020s and pre- and post-pandemic zero-hours contracts.

Your own reactions if you get the chance to see Contractions will be particularly visceral when you hear The Manager discuss matter-of-factly ‘complimentary flowers’ and extolling with an equal total lack of compassion her ‘duty of care’ on behalf of the faceless company. You want the tables to turn but – and I’m not giving too much away by writing how – they don’t.

Kate Gabriel (The Manager) and Ele Robinson (Emma) show how naturalistic acting should be but often isn’t. The best acting is reacting, and that will only happen if you are listening. Gabriel and Robinson were not just speaking their lines but living them because they believed what they were saying (and hearing), and you could see it on their faces. As Emma, Robinson’s initial smiley self-confidence visibly – and painfully – dissembled with her increasing persecution. Kate Gabriel’s Manager – in an equally brilliant performance – rarely loses her glacial smile and I am sure everyone has encountered one of these condescending and implacable jobsworths in their working lives?

The staging by whatstick theatre of Bartlett’s Contractions was an absolute triumph and deserves a life after Camden and to be seen far and wide. It is not something that you will come out saying you ‘enjoyed’ but don’t read too much into that because it is challenging, intense, bittersweet, and has increasing contemporary relevance.

Jim Pritchard

Leave a Comment