Most of us have been forced to question the role our jobs play in our personal lives and how work can erode happiness and well-being in exchange for money. Mike Bartlett’s Contractions is a chilling 45-minute two-hander depicting the increasingly invasive, sickening ways that a company controls the lives of its desperate employees. It started out as a radio drama called Love Contract, before being adapted as a stage play and performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2008. Now it’s on at Alexander Bar, directed by by Greg Karvellas (Bad Jews, Champ).
The story plays out over a series of brief meetings between Emma (Emily Child) and her unnamed manager (Janna Ramos-Violante). Their company contract states that any relationship between employees that could be “characterised as romantic or sexual” must be reported, so the manager persistently asks if Emma has anything to reveal. She insists that she has nothing to declare, until the manager informs her that a co-worker, Darren, has given the details of a date he had with Emma.
Caught out, Emma tries to avoid trouble by picking apart the company’s definitions of ‘romantic’ and ‘sexual’, but these concepts are so nebulous and subjective that she can’t escape. Instead, she ends up having to define her personal relationship for a soulless bureaucrat while being ordered not to talk about the meetings with Darren. Their private relationship is thus turned into a professional matter and wrested from their control. The manager always gets Darren’s version of events first, and often notes discrepancies in their perceptions (he thought the sex was “excellent”; Emma rated it “good”. He thinks their relationship will last a few weeks; she feels it could go on for a year). Any intimacy is heartlessly dragged out onto the table and put in writing. At first it’s funny, but uncomfortably so – absurd rather than humorous.
Emma has no choice but to become complicit in her own degradation because a breach of contract could cost her her job. The situation is further complicated when she falls pregnant and her baby becomes entangled in her contractual obligations, hence the punning title.
In a reflection of the company’s heartless policies, the play is coolly economical in set design, costume and movement. Emma and the manager wear the same bland outfit, presumably because they’re so strictly regulated that they can’t even choose their own clothes. For each meeting the characters sit at opposite ends of a desk from which the manager never moves. She remains poised and unruffled, while Emma is shuffled back and forth, getting up to leave the stage for a second or two between each meeting. This relentless repetition is echoed in the manager’s textbook dialogue: she keeps asking if there’s anything Emma has to tell them, insists that the company has a “duty of care” to its employees, and offers sudden, pretty smiles entirely devoid of warmth.
With the manager delving so deeply into the facts of Emma’s personal life that she even asks the exact number of times she and Darren have had sex, it’s unnerving that Emma knows nothing about the manager, not even her name. Her humanity is frequently questioned, and the way she always emphasises her role as a representative of the company eventually pushed me to view her not as a person but as an alien or a robot with a hive mind, tapped into data feeds from the cameras in the office and the constants reports from other managers interrogating their employees.
Janna Ramos-Violante’s icy performance is perfect here, although I think she is done a slight disservice by the script, which has the manager frequently forgetting names (Darren’s, the baby’s) in order to seem even more uncaring. This aspect of the character hardly needs to be exaggerated, and it gives her an implausible sense of inefficiency.
Emma’s character is more cohesively written and more challenging to perform. Emily Child portrays her with skilful awkwardness: slouched but anxious; angry and critical but clearly afraid of the consequences of fighting for her dignity. Some of the best moments in the play are when the tension teeters on the edge of explosive horror because of what Emma could say or do, and it’s Child’s intensity in these moments that makes them memorable.
Ultimately, it’s perhaps too severe to be extraordinary, but Contractions is nevertheless a well-written, well-acted play, with a good concept and a great deal of tension; an excellent talking point for a night out at Alexander Bar.
Contractions is running at Alexander Bar, Café and Theatre until 13 February 2016.