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The One review

| Theatre | 20/07/2018

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Rating:

Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer and Reviewer

Vicky Jones made her name directing the enormously successful Fleabag before writing and directing last year’s Touch.  Both dealt candidly with sex and relationships – themes Jones says are explored even more “brutally” in her first stage play, The One.  

Its initial run went a little under the radar in 2014 despite Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag‘s star, playing Jo – the central role written with her in mind.  Now The One is back at Soho Theatre with a new cast directed by Steve Marmion, and stands out as a powerful and hugely relevant piece of work.

The story is unambitious in its setting – the tale of a couple’s night in as they await news of a family member’s labour – but fearless in its exploration of an unequal and, at times, toxic relationship.

The-One-01-1490x1064Harry (John Hopkins, Poldark) is a Professor of English living with beautiful former student Jo, played by Tuppence Middleton (War and Peace).  Patronising and testosterone-fuelled, he continues to lead on former-flame Kerry (Julia Sandiford, Silent Witness) despite being delighted with his younger catch.

However, it soon becomes clear that Harry’s bitten off far more than he can chew with the complex, provocative Jo.  Middleton’s superb in the role, toying with Harry and tossing hand grenades into conversations with his ex whenever the opportunity arises.

Over several wine-soaked hours, their relationship frays as Jo’s goading moves from playful to something more sinister, creating a heavy atmosphere in which Harry is repeatedly instructed to assault her.  Hopkins excels in these moments, conveying uncertainty over the consent he’s been given yet unwilling to be branded a “pussy” for refusing Jo’s demands.  The resulting sex scenes – which required the input of a fight director and intimacy coach – are often unsettling, raising more questions than they answer about what constitutes rape, but valuably contribute to the debate evolving out of the #MeToo Movement.

The threat of violence hanging over the play also serves to heighten its comedic moments, invariably provided by Middleton’s wonderfully caustic tongue.  At times, Jones’ dialogue leans towards Patrick Marber’s Closer – both crude and witty in the cat-and-mouse back-and-forths between the protagonists.  But the darkening tone and Jones’ decision not to account for Jo’s behaviour through any back-story is more reminiscent of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler, with its focus on a lead inexplicably intent on self-destruction.

The-One-09-1596x1064Through cutting deconstructions and a brutal trick that draws intakes of breath in the room, Jo seems set on wrecking the relationship – bored now the thrill of the chase has gone – but unable to pull the trigger.  At one stage she accuses Harry of being sickened by her marginally less than his fear of being alone, but this seems a classic case of projection.

That’s not to say Harry’s an innocent party: he plays his own games with Jo and – although reluctantly at first – accepts invitations to dominate her physically.  And although stronger, Harry ultimately pays the price for overlooking Jo’s greater intelligence until the very end.

Despite the absorbing atmosphere, skilful acting and potent wordplay, too many issues will be left unanswered for some tastes.  However, the overriding message is evident: such an unequal relationship is doomed to fail – a point alluded to by playing Lloyd-Webber’s Music of the Night between each scene – but it’s less clear which of the pair is the true monster of the piece.

The One is playing at Soho Theatre until 25th August 2018.  Head here to see the trailer and here for tickets.  For more information on future DryWrite productions (cofounded by Vicky Jones and Phoebe Waller-Bridge), follow the company on Twitter @DryWrite.  All images used above are courtesy of Helen Maybanks.

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