It lasts only 45 minutes, but it's a tribute to the nagging intensity of Mike Bartlett's new play that, well before the halfway stage, I was desperate to escape. The Apprentice may be the "job interview from hell"; Contractions dramatises the job review procedure from purgatory. And given the choice, I'd rather face Surallan any day than be subjected to the polite sadism of the nameless female functionary.
The atmosphere of quiet corporate nightmare is reinforced by the setting. The audience, limited to 30 each night, is led through the Royal Court's offices to an anonymous meeting-room. An immaculately groomed manager – played with lethal comic precision by Julia Davis of Nighty Night fame – sits shuffling her papers while she waits to interview Anna Madeley's Emma, a keen new recruit from sales. Over 14 encounters, which unfold with a swift, dreadful inexorability in Lyndsey Turner's mesmeric production, the play charts the increasing invasion by big companies of their employees' privacy.
The proceedings begin amusingly enough, with the manager drawing Emma's attention to the firm's contractual definition of what constitutes a romantic or sexual relationship. But the temperature grows steadily more chilling as she quizzes the girl about her private relationship with a co-worker, Darren. It's largely a formality because, disturbingly, Darren seems always to have spilled the beans beforehand – though discrepancies do arise. Darren rates sex with Emma as "excellent"; she votes him merely "good".
Bartlett exaggerates reality in an absurdist manner and then extrapolates with remorseless logic. He has an acute ear for the fake solicitude of the so-called corporate "duty of care". "Did you receive the complimentary flowers?" asks the manager, blithely unaware of the heartlessness of the adjective, when Emma's baby dies. Bartlett is alert to the accents of passive-aggressive threat: "I'm not saying anything. I'm not implying anything. I'm simply asking if you want to tell me anything." It's the patient, level tone of management, so insultingly sure of success, that drives you to screaming pitch, as the play forecasts a society where, in order to cling on to jobs, people will allow their paymasters to monitor the most intimate areas of their lives.
What we witness here is a form of torture, for all its apparent civility, and you long for Emma to turn the tables and plot some warped vengeance. Instead, she shows every sign by the end of slowly turning into her persecutor. There's a ghoulish neo-Jacobean moment when she arrives for a meeting with her baby's corpse in a cardboard box. She brings it, though, not as a spur for vengeance but to meet the company's stringent demands for proof of death, and the manager prods the cadaver with her ballpoint with all the sensitivity of a meat inspector.
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