Post Curtain Call:
“Emma, come in. Sit down.”
These words mark the start of every exchange in the two-women show, ‘Contractions’. They are words the audience learns to dread as the conversations go from silly, to uncomfortable, to surreal, to horrific. Don’t go in, Emma. Don’t sit down. Run, Emma, Run.
Theatrically, I will remember the past two months as the ‘Summer of Dystopias’. No less than four performances in a row masterfully drew audiences into bleak parallel realities. Underline parallel three times, because no matter how exaggerated or absurd, there was always that cold recognition that makes the hair on one’s arm stand up.
It started off in mid-July with Theatrethreesixty’s ‘The Pillowman’ in which the protagonist is the author of grimmer-than-Grimm short stories. Suspected of crimes in place where torture is an accepted method of gaining confessions, reality was just as effed-up as his tales.
In early August there was ‘Kandang’, where animals on a farm rise up against despotic humans. They win the good fight and enjoy a brief taste of equality before they plummet one circle of hell lower than the one they occupied pre-revolution.
And speaking of hells, in last week’s immersive performance, ‘L5-7-44′, officers – highly trained in efficiency but completely devoid of empathy – delivered the most shocking news one can receive in one’s death time.
And now a fourth smart, satirical and darkly humorous play. The Theatresauce production of ‘Contractions’ by Mike Bartlett is the must-watch and must-discuss play of the week.
The audience, enters the theatre (KLPAC’s Indicine in the most successful use of that tiny space I’ve seen so far) and find seats around a small area where manager (Anne James) works at her desk. She is lit by a soft spotlight. There’s a weird buzzing sound, but other than that, so far, so normal.
A door hisses open – the one hint we have of a futuristic setting – and harsh white lights crash on to reveal a huge, sterile office. There is a chair across from the manager, as far from the desk as it can be without blocking the doorway. Emma (Sandee Chew) comes in and, as invited to, sits down. The first of many passive aggressive interrogations begin. “Is there anything you want to tell me?”
I freely admit to a fondness for villains and so am delighted by Anne James’s interpretation of the manager. Think of other benevolently smiling fiends, such as Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge, Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes, or Ronald Reagan’s President.
The Manager (we know her by no other name) believes completely in her own sincerity. The questions she asks Emma and the resulting actions are for the [company’s] Greater Good. A slave to policy, she ignores Emma’s logic or even the evidence in front of her. If it’s good for the company, it follows that it must be good for the employee.
No matter how absurd or appalling her requests, her tone is consistently earnest and reasonable. And for those of us who adore dark humour, she is frankly hilarious. Until…
Remember when the idea of Donald Trump becoming the next president of a powerful country was a running joke? And remember when it stopped being funny? I do. It was when Trump’s followers took his words as permission to rise up onto their hind feet, slap on swastikas, and start beating people up for not being white. Shit got real.
At the start, Emma is as amused by the manager’s ridiculous questions as we are. She gamely responds. She is good at her job and gets along well with her colleagues. Why should the company care about anything else?
But the company does, of course, and the manager is a consummate company woman. Her relentless prosecution based on a non-issue grinds a once congenial and confident employee down into a walking wreck. Because of Emma, the manager stops being funny.
It’s an unfair fight. Emma is smart and, at the start, more than able to stand up for herself, but her manager is a solid wall. Emma reasons, cajoles, mocks and ultimately batters herself against the wall. The wall stands, Emma not so much.
Emma’s smile as she’s invited to come in and sit down goes from genuine to forced to non-existent. The spring leaves her step and her posture goes to hell. The manager’s consistently ‘professional’ tone and posture, especially the way she leans forward to express concern, becomes unbearably offensive. Everything down to the way she drags out, Slytherin-like, the final ’s’ in her words make one’s skin crawl.
What didn’t work? In the final moments, we hear a sound that presumably she hears too. It appears to be an odd attempt to humanise her. But it’s too little too late. If there were humanity in her, it would have shown itself far earlier.
What does work? Everything else. Sandee Chew is an actor we’ve been keen to see more of and Anne James is an actor one can’t get enough of. Together they take a very good script and make it satisfyingly sizzle.
And the topic. It is not sympathy for Emma alone that makes the story cut with recognition. Who has not tried to plead under very special circumstances to hear only the unbending reply “it’s against policy”? In this decade, there are still multinationals that refer to pregnancy a lifestyle choice and have management-level meetings to discuss an employee’s sexuality.
Like the three other plays referred to earlier, ‘Contractions’ plunges you into an episode of ‘Dark Mirror’. You will laugh, you will gasp, you will clench your fists and you will emerge blinking out of the theatre with a million things you can’t wait to discuss with friends. Watch it with the smart people you know and make plans for drinks afterwards. The company thanks you.