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Review: Contractions (New Diorama Theatre)

Deafinitely Theatre's new adaptation of Mike Bartlett's play is a site-specific first for the company

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Deafinitely Theatre's inventive policy of mixing spoken word with British Sign Language receives its most ambitious iteration yet in this site-specific revival of Mike Bartlett's absurdist-tinged 2008 piece about corporate bullying.

Audience members are ushered from the New Diorama's lobby across a sleek, modern courtyard to a soaring atrium which used to be the trading floor for J P Morgan in Euston, all chrome, glass and glimpses of real office professionals finishing off their working days in well appointed bureaus high above us. It's a striking location for the play and one that, in tandem with Chris Bartholomew's doom-laden sound score, makes us as audience members feel a little uneasy from the outset.

This is with good reason: Bartlett's 75 minute script starts out as a jokey, laconic look at the ridiculousness of high end corporate life but gets really nasty really quickly as the true cost of getting, and staying ahead in such a faceless, cut-throat environment becomes clear. An interesting article in the programme details the significant but largely inexplicable shortfall in qualifications and professional achievements between deaf people and their hearing counterparts though neither Bartlett's writing nor director Paula Garfield's slick direction truly explores that. Of the two characters, one of them, The Manager in fact, communicates almost entirely in BSL, while Abigail Poulton as Emma, the office worker being professionally investigated, uses both spoken word and BSL.

This is all pretty engrossing to watch but doesn't really inform from a deaf perspective, or illuminate what Bartlett is trying to say. In an interesting choice, Garfield doesn't have every speech in the short, terse scenes translated, so as a non-BSL speaker there will be moments you don't fully comprehend every word, and vice versa. As the play wears on, Poulton's vocal repetition of what has just been signed becomes less necessary and even a bit wearisome. Tellingly, there is a scene where the women argue in fury that is done entirely in BSL, yet as a hearing person I didn't feel the lack of spoken word at all. By contrast, there is a section where a lot of information needs to be conveyed regarding a major plot development, and it feels like a bit of a cop-out to have The Manager's lines coming from a pre-recorded tape.

Poulton is excellent as a woman whose position on the corporate ladder is severely compromised by her liaison with a fellow worker, thereby contravening company policy. She goes through hell but by the end of the play becomes a dead-eyed somnambulist, apparently willing to tow the company line to the detriment of every aspect of her life. Poulton overdoes the Stepford wife bit somewhat but prior to that disintegrates most effectively before our very eyes (note the way she subtly moves her chair further and further away from her boss's desk with every early appearance).

As the character known simply as The Manager, a glossy, chilly figure that makes Cruella de Vil look like Mother Teresa, Fifi Garfield is magnificently imperious, the kind of corporate monster whose only meaningful relationships are with her manicurist and the bottle of vodka she keeps in her desk drawer. She is horrible but mesmerising to watch.

Taken at face value, the play is ultimately implausible, much in the way that Bartlett's other office-set piece, the more testosterone-fuelled Bull, was and the characters feel more like devices than real people, but that is not the point. It's a worst case scenario tale and has a compulsive watchability that is enhanced by being performed in this authentically impressive but soulless environment.

Contractions runs at the New Diorama until 29 November.