First performed a decade ago, Mike Bartlett’s Contractions seems to get more relevant - and more creepy - with every passing year. A comment on both faceless corporatism and surveillance culture, it’s the story of a once-ambitious saleswoman called Emma and her run-in with a nameless HR manager. The accomplished script is both witty and disturbing, and Buxton Drama League’s version of it lives up to its sinister promise.
Driven by a pathological concern over “favouritism or inappropriate conduct”, the woman from HR wants to know about Emma’s relationships… but only, she’s at pains to stress, if they’re “romantic or sexual” ones. There’s a lot of comedy in her convoluted interpretation of those particular terms, but as the play progresses, the company’s legalistic intrusiveness grows more and more grotesque. It becomes clear, too, that Emma’s being watched and monitored - always in the name of fairness, of applying consistent policies to the company’s staff around the world.
Playing the Manager, Corrine Coward responds well to the unusual demands of her role. The very essence of Contractions is that she’s emotionless, mechanistic and unfeeling; as close to an android as you can find in human form. Coward clearly understands this, and there’s more than a hint of Siri or Alexa to her measured rhythm and precisely-placed intonation. That restraint makes it all the more effective when, just occasionally, the blank-faced mask slips; a slightly-raised eyebrow is a celebration of victory, the briefest hesitation hints at a human side.
As Emma, meanwhile, Maria Carnegie runs through a series of emotions: first resistant and sarcastic, then compliant in the face of threats, and finally broken as the corporation’s increasingly-outrageous demands take an especially dark turn. Perhaps I found the earlier scenes more convincing than the later ones, though it’s fair to point out that the script itself veers from realism to absurdity. The most haunting scene, for me, came when Carnegie describes a break-up, the contrast between her factual retelling and her simmering distress highlighting the inhumanity of it all.
With both characters sitting at a desk for virtually the whole of the play, there’s little opportunity for dynamism - though the direction does capture a sense of Groundhog Day, as Emma returns to the Manager’s office time and time again, to receive the same greeting delivered in exactly the same way. And the production reflects the humour of Bartlett’s script well, with Coward in particular demonstrating an impeccable sense of timing.
Contractions at times is laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s a strident warning too - against the mindless application of “consistent” rules, and a creeping loss of humanity. Well worth catching on its final performance at the Fringe.