'The One' review or 'Silently the senses abandon their defenses...'

‘The One’, Vicky Jones
Soho Theatre, 27th February 2014

‘The One’ is like ‘Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ only crueller, more physical and with Wotsits. It won the Verity Bargate Award for writer Vicky Jones and stars her long-term collaborator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The show is a little over-directed and perhaps even over-performed but this is still vibrant, dangerous, stomach-churning theatre.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge owns the central role, which was written specifically for her. She dominates the stage as precocious, damaged and abusive young lover, Jo. Rufus Wright plays Jo’s older professor boyfriend, Harry, who is cruel and weak and exquisitely elusive. Lu Corfield plays the poor sap, Kerry, stuck in the middle of this destructive couple and their verbal and physical warfare.

Director Steve Marmion has pitched his production just a notch above normal and Anthony Lamble’s set hovers a few inches outside reality. The stage looks like a normal living room, except for a few tiny shifts. A bookshelf seems to hover in mid-air. The ceiling lights up with stars. Lots of the props are oddly regimented, as if Jo and Harry are living in a house that someone else has designed.

Marmion makes his presence felt particularly strongly during the scene changes. A faux-romantic ambience is pumped into the theatre. Stars twinkle on the back wall, the main lights dim and the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack sweeps out of the speakers. It is grotesquely amusing but this extravagant comic shading ultimately cheapens the play. Everyone is let off the hook. The characters seem that little less real and the danger, less threatening. The audience is given the chance to detach themselves from the cruel behaviour unfolding on-stage.  
A play as dark and quietly simmering shouldn’t have a get-out clause built into the production. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is enough of a safety hatch as it is. She is a dark, mine-field of a performer but there’s something about her highly pitched performances that never lands squarely in reality. Anything she performs in will always have the subtlest of surreal sheens and the directing doesn't need to layer any more obscurity on top of this.

These intrusive directorial touches also take the edge off Jo’s and Harry’s malicious behaviour towards their midnight visiter, Kerry. The production consistently invites us to laugh at Kerry. She first appears beneath an isolated rain shower. It feels like the stage – or the director – is bullying Kerry. This makes the couple’s behaviour feel like just one of many injustice’s performed on the soft-hearted Kerry. It makes their vicious behaviour feel ordinary.

Other directorial touches are more useful. In between the scenes, as the tension rockets up and the physical threats unfurl, Jo and Harry move the clock on the wall forward and empty endless bottles of wine. Time is passing; the whole of their relationship is sliding by and this masochistic and controlling couple are losing their grip. Factors beyond their control are moving things forward.

This is a deeply unnerving production, despite a few directorial glitches. ‘The One’ feels like the first genuinely contemporary relationship I’ve seen on stage for some time.  There is a flippancy to Jo and Harry’s cruelty that feels disturbingly ‘now’.  There is a casual tone to their verbal abuse that reminds one of internet trolling. There is a cruel competitive edge to this central relationship which feels modern, as does the deep vulnerability that comes with any sign of softness or compassion.   

Waller-Bridge is one of the most relevant and compelling performers of our generation. No matter how heightened or buzzy or bang out crazy her delivery, she sounds familiar. There is a fearlessness about her performances, a cruel abandon and a deep and humming level of self-doubt, that feels intrinsically connected with today’s youth. She is compelling and hateful, vulnerable and over-confident, brave and lost and lonely and sad.    

This isn’t a perfect play; there is a sub-plot about a pregnant sister that feels wildly irrelevant. But Vicky Jones, with the help of an excellent cast, has given life to a relationship that could only be borne of today’s generation. For all the truth telling that theatre affords, there is rarely such a direct symbiosis between the events on stage and the characters in the audience. Sure, there will always be emotional and intellectual lines that pull the audience in but we are so often shown ‘the other’ in the theatre.  ‘The One’, for all its cruel jolts and malicious flashes, isn’t that far removed from the experiences of lots of the young spectators at Soho theatre. That’s what makes it so frightening.