Contractions Review

Mike Bartlett’s play Contractions was first seen at London’s Royal Court in 2008 (starting off as a radio play before that). The latest adaptation, directed by Paula Garfield, is now showing in a disused trading floor near Warren Street station. A collaboration between Deafinitely Theatre (the UK’s leading deaf theatre company) and the New Diorama, it is a site-specific ninety minute piece that incorporates sign language.

This powerful two-hander revolves around new recruit, Emma, trying to progress within ‘the company’ whilst secretly sleeping with one of her colleagues. Relationships with co-workers are forbidden and Emma’s attempts to deflect and deny her relationship do not wash with her robotic-like manager. Then when she comes clean things take an even stranger turn – the manager’s interest in her relationship only amplifying and her meddling growing increasingly toxic.

Both the setting (an old J P Morgan building) and the use of sign language complement the play’s text and add to the sense of disconnect between employee and employer. It is staggering to look up at the circular walkways with the countless glass doors and high ceiling. It effectively shows just how small one employee is within a large faceless corporation. And the sign language helps us to empathize with Emma, someone desperately trying to adhere to new rules – that seem to keep changing.

As Emma, Abigail Poulton deftly evolves her character from keen newbie to ambitious jobs-worth and finally a brainwashed drone. She subtly mines humour from her interactions with her manager, finding interesting ways to express awkwardness and desperation. Poulton both speaks aloud and through Sign and she remains the connecting tissue between the audience and her manager, as well as those who speak Sign and those who don’t. Due to her performance (as well as the direction) the sign language never seems like a gimmick nor does the play ever fall flat during the translation.

Playing the manager is Fifi Garfield. Maintaining an impassive, dead-eyed stare throughout, the stalwart manager is the polar opposite to mercurial Emma. Initially Fifi Garfield’s performance comes across as slightly one note but once Contractions reaches its disturbing denouement, it is clear this is by design as we see just how unrelenting the manager, and ‘the company’, really are.

The direction by Paula Garfield is efficient and simple and she generously allows the actors room to breathe. There are some clever visual touches using a glass door as a whiteboard and a humorous use of a projector. The staging is mostly static and we get the sense that Emma and her manager are in a series of one-to-one meetings. And in each of these encounters, Emma moves her chair further and further away from her manager’s desk (a simple and witty way to portray Emma’s growing dislike and fear of her cruel boss).

Whilst Contractions can be darkly funny, I wouldn’t describe it as a comedy. It is more like a tragic fable – a Kafta-esque nightmare – about the dangers of corporate efficiency; with sharp wit used to heightens the horror rather than add levity.

When Emma’s manager states that there are no other jobs out there I initially wondered why Emma simply takes her word for it and doesn’t just leave. Considering she knows how manipulative her manager is, why would she take this at face value? However, by the end of the play it makes sense because Emma has been so methodically broken down she has ceased to value her own judgment or worth. In a time when workplace bullying, harassment and abuse of power are so under the spotlight, Contractions really packs a punch.

Highly recommended.

Contractions is showing between Wed 1 – Wed 29 Nov @ 20:00 | Sat Matinees @ 16:00 (No performances Sun/Mon) |Prices £14.50 / £12.50 (concessions) | Tickets can be booked through the website.

Review written by Gareth Brown @GarethBrown26
Gareth regularly writes for ONIN London and works freelance as a writer and filmmaker. See the trailer for his latest short comedy ‘The Ex’.