Contractions is an intriguing play. It explores questions of privacy and surveillance, looking at the individual vs the corporation through a series of meetings between an employee, Emma (Sophie Stiewe) and her Manager (Cat White). The static and repetitive nature of the play means that it is difficult to maintain energy and interest in the piece – scene after scene just involves Emma entering the office and talking with the Manager. However, the director Lisa Freidrich, has done a good job with this unusual piece and the quality of acting displayed by both Sophie and Cat did justice to the script, ensuring this potentially dull play remained engaging.
The play revolves around the Manager asking increasingly personal questions to Emma about her relationship with another colleague, Darren. We see the couple’s developing love being reduced to analytics in an often humorous but also disconcerting way. The Manager is positioned in an omnipotent position of power – receiving information from both Emma and Darren, and surveying their interactions within the office. She gets Emma to rate the sex as if filling out a quiz – ‘good, very good, or excellent’ – and makes the couple agree on an expiry date for their relationship. Cat White deserves special mention for superb portrayal of this robotic, unfeeling Manager through her unnervingly measured speech and excellent use of body language. She leans forward in her seat in an intimidating manner and maintains consistent and unsettling eye contact with Emma throughout. Cat’s delivery of lines such as “you put your tongue in his mouth and he did the same” in an eerily monotonous tone captures the Manager’s detachment from the human element of relationships in a very believable and disturbing way.
The final scenes crystalise the key themes of the play – the power of companies, the vulnerability of employees and the dehumanisation of the work place.
Sophie Stiewe equally deserves praise for her depiction of Emma. The first few scenes of her acting were a little awkward and forced, but she really came into her own during the second half of the play as her character developed. Emma suffers the loss of her boyfriend as well as the death of her child and consequently attempts to face up to the company. This confrontation and tension between Emma and the Manger is where the energy of the play lies. During most of the play the scenes are very static. But during the climax of the play where Emma tries to resign, her sudden new found physicality – leaning over the desk, pacing to the other side of the office and shouting at the Manager – is shocking and exhilarating. The position of the audience, on either side of the set, was a brilliant choice that enabled the audience to become fully involved in the scene and see the profiles of the two characters very clearly.
The final scenes crystalise the key themes of the play – the power of companies, the vulnerability of employees and the dehumanisation of the work place. Emma’s self-debasement reaches a pinnacle as she places her dead baby’s body on the Manager’s desk in an attempt to get her boyfriend relocated back to her office. This seemed a slightly over the top addition – the play demonstrates an extreme Orwellian view of the workplace, and at times labours the point. However, at other moments, subtler dialogue underpins the play’s ideas more effectively. The Manager constantly uses Emma’s name when addressing her – to the point where it becomes condescending and off-putting. But as Emma highlights, we never get to know the Manger’s identity – she is a nameless cold figure of power. The corporate overpowers any notions of humanity and identity in this fictional company.
Contractions is not one of the most gripping pieces I’ve seen; it certainly felt finished after an hour, and I think more could have been done with music or lighting to provide more variety. However, the production held my attention, the acting was to a very high standard and the subject matter was extremely thought-provoking, raising important questions of privacy, identity and the workplace – pertinent in our age of zero-hour contracts and potential changes to employee rights that may occur following Britain’s exit from the EU.