“It’s kind of funny. And it’s kind of sad.” These are the words of Harry, one half of the nightmarish pairing at the centre of Vicky Jones’ prickly debut play, but they might as well act as a strapline for this story of vicious lovers. That blend of the bitter and the hilarious, along with its uneasy ambivalence, neatly characterises Jones’ narrative of two individuals who are terrifyingly adept at pushing one another’s buttons. It’s equal parts side-splitting and jaw-dropping (not necessarily in a good way) to watch, repeatedly juxtaposing giggles and winces, all the while underscored with the sense of something queasily problematic.
It’s clear from the start that the piece – particularly as directed here by Steve Marmion – is out to ruthlessly skewer romantic cliches. After sitting through a medley of cheesy love songs while the rest of the audience file into the space, the lights go down to reveal a star-studded backdrop at the rear of Anthony Lamble’s minimal living room set, and the opening strains of “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera (a show with a dubious romantic hero if ever there was one) usher on Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Rufus Wright as couple Jo and Harry. The pair embrace, only for the Hollywood romance to abruptly give way to a perfunctory, joyless fuck. Porn plays in the background and Jo throws Wotsits into her mouth.
Given the scenario and the distinctive, charismatic presence of Waller-Bridge, comparisons with Fleabag – the performer’s fearlessly filthy solo show, directed by Jones – immediately invite themselves. This might as well be one of the countless sexual encounters described in that show, where the addition of Wotsits would be one of the least surprising aspects of its catalogue of promiscuity. And like Fleabag, The One insistently pushes at the boundaries of acceptability. It has a “did they really just say that?” quality about it, not to mention the same razor-sharp comedy, impeccably delivered by the ever-extraordinary Waller-Bridge. Yet, while Fleabag also traded on discomfort and fired out laughs that quickly soured in the mouth, there is something altogether more knotty and unsettling about The One.
The action of the piece is claustrophobically confined to the one room, in what could be seen as a jaded, ironic take on the drawing-room comedy. Waiting up for news of the impending birth of Jo’s niece, the bored couple tease, taunt and torment one another, occasionally including Harry’s friend, colleague and old flame Kerry in their sparring. Both Harry and Jo are fiercely intelligent, each using their frustrated intellect and intimate knowledge of the other to push at their limits. The gender politics are complicated by the knotty student/teacher relationship between the pair: English professor Harry is ten years Jo’s senior and taught her at university, suggesting that something lightly exploitative – or at the very least illicit – was in play right from the beginning.
Harry and Jo’s interactions throughout the play, which takes place across the one night, explore varying levels of transgression within relationships. How far would you go to hurt the other person? And how far is too far? There are repeated, rapid descents from playfulness into something far less savoury, testing that delicate tipping point between OK and not OK. It is clear that they both derive a perverse pleasure from abusing one another; at one point Kerry asks “who wants to live like this?”, but evidently they do. Their relationship is a constant competition, in which both of them are desperate to win.
Too often, however, the effect of all this back and forth – no matter how witty – is the sense of a series of rehearsed arguments and provocations. There is a flavour of the thought experiment to certain scenes, with the characters acting merely as ciphers. This is not to say that the theatre is not a place for thought experiments, but when conversation progresses onto a troubling preoccupation with rape – replete with the sort of rape jokes that abound in lad culture – the emptiness of its musings becomes seriously problematic. The play, like its characters, is interested in button-pushing, but I wonder if ultimately it takes its tactics a little too far without offering anything to justify them.
I suspect that a good portion of this ambivalence and discomfort is as much a product of Marmion’s production as it is of the play that Jones has written (although that suspicion, of course, depends on a potentially disingenuous separation of the two). Other than standing it up on stage, Marmion does little to engage with or interrogate the stickier aspects of the piece, and the interventions he does make feel odd and uneven. The aforementioned skewering of romance (the stars, the music, the low lighting between scenes) is an obvious choice, but one that is increasingly out of step with the play. This is clearly about far more than simply unmasking the sham of a particular idea of romantic love. The half-heartedly choreographed movement between scenes is painfully awkward in its sort-of-abstract suggestions of erotic game-playing and sexual violence, while some unnecessary pouring away of wine and fiddling with clock hands seems calculated to do little more than inform us that time has passed.
Meanwhile, as unfailingly brilliant as Waller-Bridge may be, I’m not sure that casting her in this play – which, even without seeing the note in the script, we might quickly deduce has been written for her – is entirely helpful. For a start, it makes that connection with Fleabag, through the lens of which Jones’ play is then inevitably viewed. And then, because of that unbearable yet electric quality that she brings to the role, the character of Jo dominates the stage; it becomes her show. Of course this is partly down to the fact that Jones has written the piece with Waller-Bridge in mind, but it would be fascinating to see what a different actress might bring to that central dynamic. Along with different direction, it might also allow the play to breathe a little more.
Seeing as comparisons with Fleabag are unavoidable, there is one more that feels worth drawing. The real kick in the guts of that piece was the way in which its humour attacked the audience. We laughed – great big guffaws of laughter – and then caught ourselves in the act of laughing, made suddenly aware of just what it was we were laughing at. We were made to feel complicit. The One reaches for the same reaction, but comes up a little short. There’s still unease, certainly, and the laughter is still barbed, but it feels as though we are let off the hook slightly. If that sharp humour and thorny complicity is the aim of the game, it needs to be executed a little more cleverly than it is here.
Yet despite all my uncertainty about – and in some cases anger towards – the play, I can’t just go ahead and dismiss it. The One has, for better or worse, lodged itself in my brain, still picking away two days later. It certainly has something to say, or some provocation to make, even if I can’t quite pin it down. Perhaps its slipperiness, its very resistance to being pinned down, is preciously the point.
I also find myself wondering if it’s trying to do something smarter than I’ve given it credit for. One of the most striking things about its resolutely unpleasant characters is the extent to which they are fixated on individual desires. Which makes me reflect that the title might refer not so much to “The One” in the mystical sense of one’s soulmate (though this is clearly one inference), but to the isolated number, the atomised modern individual. I’m reminded, via Andy Field, of the quote from writer and director René Pollesch: “I would like to talk to the capitalists about money, but they only wanted to tell love stories”. The One is not a love story – not in any traditional sense, anyway – but it is a damning display of the way in which the constant pursuit of and obsession with love and sex are intimately tied up with a society which places focus firmly on the self. Jo and Harry, locked into their hermetically sealed relationship, are perfect portraits of apathy; they barely leave the house, they don’t know where their lives are going, they are so bored that all they can think to do is tear strips off one another. This, perhaps, is where an obsession with “The One” – in both senses of that phrase – ultimately leads.