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THE ONE – Soho Theatre, London.

the one

Photo by Helen Maybanks

Sexual violence. Verbal abuse. Psychological torture. Infidelity. Rape. Abortion. The basis of an earnest, plodding issues play? No, the shockingly funny, keenly observed and Verity Bargate Award-winning debut from DryWrite’s Vicky Jones, currently provoking audiences at the Soho Theatre.

The One is a real high-wire act, gleefully puncturing taboos with its frank and filthy approach to moral discourse without losing its essential humanity. Its characters frequently exhibit monstrous behaviour, but are not simply monsters; Jones’s script is far too sly for that. Her chillingly co-dependent lovers are tangled in a vicious, sadistic game of chicken, needling one another until they draw blood, and yet who’s to say it’s not true love? This unsettling piece doesn’t so much blur lines as tear them off the page.

It benefits from crisp focus, telling the toxic tale of Harry and Jo through one intense night. That the English professor shacked up with his student is the first of many transgressions; more urgently, the pair needs twisted stimulation to break through the fog of their cosmopolitan ennui. A visit from Harry’s colleague, tearfully proclaiming she may have been sexually assaulted by her boyfriend, is the perfect fuel, and this incident kicks off a series of shifting challenges to the audience’s cosy assumptions.

Director Steve Marmion does an admirable job of negotiating the tone, aided by his sharp, dynamic cast. Jones wrote the female lead for collaborator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and she returns the favour with a barnstorming performance. Her Jo is restless, mercurial, brightly inappropriate and inventively cruel, peppering her victims with devastating one-liners like machine-gun fire and donning multiple roles and deceits to cover any trace of vulnerability.

It’s a strikingly unusual part for an actress, and Waller-Bridge makes a compelling argument for the creation of many more. Jo is placed in clear contrast with her sister, whose difficult labour wittily punctuates the evening, and it’s interesting to note that, in this contest of savage one-upmanship, the trump card is not kinky desire or physical violence, but a calculated revelation involving motherhood, which hints at the limiting attitude towards female norms. In this new era of feminist drama, such exploration is vital.

the one

Photo by Helen Maybanks

Rufus Wright makes a strong partner-in-crime, genuinely unnerving in the still moments, and Lu Corfield is hysterical as his old flame, playing Kerry’s anguish as both genuine and calculated. Unfortunately, her approach is misguided – any romcom tropes that pop up are just there for target practice, and this is not the place for a victim to find solace, nor to negotiate her way into a love triangle. Waller-Bridge’s line reading of “Kerry would be kind to you, Harry” is masterful, a child relishing her power as she pulls the wings off a butterfly.

Most impressive is Jones’s commentary on subjective experience and the language we use to characterise it. Harry’s sweet nothings echo the verbal justification of the abuser, but the more we get inside their relationship, the harder it is to classify it as plainly wrong, bad, abnormal. Perhaps they really are special, perhaps they really are right for each other, or perhaps that mutual understanding just means they know exactly how to wound. You reaction to the ending will tell you which side you come down on, and no doubt lead to a furious discussion in the bar afterwards.

At just over an hour, this is real gem of a play, providing a combination of Oleanna’s gender politics debate, a modern-day Amanda and Elyot and a Pinteresque savage romance. Plus Wotsits. And the best use of Phantom of the Opera you’re likely to see. A hugely promising debut and an unexpected knockout.

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Reviewed 26/02/2014

By Marianka Swain
@mkmswain

Until 30th Mar 2014
Soho Theatre, London, W1.

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