at Chapter Stwdio, Cardiff
Director – Kate Wasserberg
Producer – Iain Goosey
Cast – Catrin Aaron & Sara Lloyd-Gregory
At one of my previous employers the staff took to referring to the Human Resources department as Human Remains, such was its reputation for intimidation and waste. Mike Bartlett’s savage corporate satire Contractions takes that sardonic joke to its terrible conclusion as it details the piecemeal mental and physical destruction of sales executive Emma (Sara Lloyd-Gregory) at the hands of her nameless and officious manager (Catrin Aaron).
The febrile politics of corporations have been frequently explored in works such as David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and Neil Labute’s film In the Company of Men – but Contractions is a distinctly individual contribution to this growing sub-genre, as it features a cast of two women. Whereas previous corporate dramas have been drenched in a white-collar machismo – which is simultaneously pilloried and glamorised – Bartlett’s play is a scalpel-sharp dissection of a system designed to control and circumscribe the lives of those who dedicate their working life to its daily grind. The audience does not learn what is made or sold by the mysterious corporation because it does not matter, what is being examined here are not the economic transactions of business, but the human cost to those who are compelled to trade some aspect of their individuality in order to be accommodated within the project of late capitalism.
Bartlett has written about finding himself at university asking, ‘Where are the plays that I love about now?’ Contractions is decidedly a play about our contemporary moment, with its themes of surveillance, lack of privacy and workplace alienation. Sara Lloyd-Gregory excels in conveying the unease of being invited in to have a chat with the line-manager and then asked a lot of questions of which the purpose is unclear. Similarly, Catrin Aaron is icily menacing as the Manager, speaking in a detached legalistic language by which she intends to convey impartiality, but which instead betrays her lack of emotional involvement and personal responsibility. Never has the phrase, ‘And how are things?’ seemed so loaded with latent threat.
Both cast members are the highlights of this production, indeed they lend it a degree of emotional intensity that the text oftentimes merely indicates. There is real excitement in watching these two talented actors deploying their considerable stage technique to deliver the frequent repetitions and reiterations of the script with nuance and variety. The final shift from comedy into bleak expressionistic tragedy is handled extremely well, Lloyd-Gregory shines especially brightly in the latter scenes as the professional ‘mask’ of her character slips and we glimpse the pain and madness of the woman beneath.
If there is a fault with Contractions, as a play, it is that for most of its fifty-five minute length both characters are presenting each other – and therefore the audience – with a defensive façade behind which they are hiding their true emotions and motivations. This inevitably limits any potential for in-depth emotional engagement with either character, particularly the Manager who does not appear to develop at all over the course of the drama. This deficiency merely prevents this good play from being considered a great one, although it certainly makes for entertaining and challenging satire.
Kate Wasserberg directs the production with clarity and authority. The minimalist set by Max Jones and Ruth Hall concentrates our focus on the assured acting of the cast. The play is structured in short individual scenes that are interspersed by Dyfan Jones’ oppressive soundscape of whirring gears, machine cranks and rending metal, which fill the Chapter Stwdio with a creeping sense of dread. It would be a shame if this adroit production were not able to reach a larger audience beyond this tiny auditorium.
The elliptical rhythms of Bartlett’s dialogue is reflected in the circular structure of Contractions, in which the play’s ending eerily echoes its opening scene. Anyone who has experienced, even to a slight degree, a sense of individual helplessness when caught up in the machinery of a corporate process – be it a merger, relocation or investigation – will understand at once Bartlett’s Kafkaesque depiction of workplace bureaucracy and bullying. The author is well served by a production, and in particular its cast who realise both the comedy and terror of his vision.
This production of Contractions will now play at the Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold 1-5 April 2014. For more information go to: www.contarctionstheplay.co.uk