Contractions starts out innocently enough – a woman, Emma, goes for a ‘routine’ meeting with her manager. This slowly twists, however, into a nightmarish examination of privacy, or the lack thereof, in a modern corporate world. Director Lisa Friedrich’s production capitalises on this growing and inescapable feeling of entrapment, guiding the audience along with Emma (Sophie Stiewe) to a numbing realisation of her powerlessness.
This crescendo of uneasiness is partly enabled by the fantastic portrayal of the Manager (who remains unnamed) by Cat White. With her saccharine smiles and brilliant use of textbook workplace techniques (repeatedly using Emma’s name, making eye contact, nodding along in understanding), White lulls the audience into a false sense of security along with Emma. Her invasive and ridiculous questions into Emma’s personal life are explained away with confident referrals to ‘company practice’, and her shows of innocent confusion as to why Emma might have any problem with the interference are particularly persuasive. I also enjoyed the decision to keep the Manager on stage at all times, further equating her with the company and distancing her from any sort of individual personality. These kinds of touches were enough to set the scene – in fact, I felt that the building silhouettes on the wall were slightly unnecessary in such a psychologically-based drama.
Sophie Stiewe as Emma, too, is extremely convincing. The subtle physical differences in her repeated walks onto the stage convey – even before she speaks – her deteriorating mental state, and the fraying of her life and mind is delicately and thought-provokingly handled.
Contractions as a play seems to tread a thin line between tragedy and absurd black comedy, and part of its power lies in blurring the line between the ridiculous and the reasonable. This production effectively manages this interplay, especially in the most shocking scene of all in which the Manager casually sticks a post-it note to the most important thing in Emma’s life, before swiftly moving on to other matters.
One element of the play that grates a little is Mike Bartlett’s treatment of the Manager’s character. ‘Do you have children?’ Emma asks repeatedly, searching for any sign of humanity in the other woman. ‘Do you have anything going on apart from your job? I bet you’re so lonely.’ While this is effective in drawing the Manager into sharp contrast with Emma, it might also be seen as a reflection of the uneasiness surrounding powerful women in the workplace. Bartlett seems to be drawing a contrast not only between Emma and the Manager, but between the sympathetic, human woman, complete with romance and child, and the unsettling, heartless woman whose life revolves around her career. Maybe the Manager does put her job first, but this is not what makes her inhuman. In this respect, the script felt slightly dated. The production itself, however, was excellent, and despite uncomfortable aspects of Bartlett’s script, the team behind Contractions have created an engaging and emotive show.