I need to be able to look across a room and find someone who gets it – doesn’t just get right here right now but gets the whole lot, the whole long trail of everything that went before.
I was lucky to see Di & Viv & Rose in its original incarnation at the Downstairs theatre back in 2011 and thought it was one of the best plays I saw that year. A play that explores the intensity of female friendship, written by a woman, directed by a woman, and starring three women, it was a marvellous thing then and still is now. I wouldn’t be surprised if Di & Viv & Rose is one of the theatrical highlights of 2013.
Di and Viv and Rose meet at university in the 80s. Di (Tamzin Outhwaite – the only original cast member) is a sporty lesbian, Viv (the lovely Gina McKee) a serious academic reading sociology who ‘dresses like it’s the war’, and free-spirited Rose (Anna Maxwell Martin) has a lot of sex and just wants everything to be beautiful. Despite their differences – Rose and Viv in particular rarely see eye-to-eye – the three move in together, and so begins a complicated, beautiful and wonderful friendship which writer Amelia Bullmore skilfully charts over the next thirty years.
Bullmore excels at dialogue and for much of the first half you can’t stop laughing as the girls get to know each other: they discover that they can’t live without bread, bacon and dried apricots respectively, and they fight about whose turn it is to do the laundry. The chemistry between the three actresses is electric, and you just know they’re having a wonderful time.
Bullmore avoids making Di a lesbian cliché and Outhwaite is both energetic and vulnerable, utterly believable as the glue that holds the three together. Viv is the first in her family to go to university, constantly aware that she must make the most of the opportunities her mother never had. Fiercely intelligent she views all clothes as a ‘costume’ (incisively, and not without venom, dissecting her friends’ wardrobes), argues that the female waist is a ‘male construct’ and is contemptuous of Rose’s promiscuity. In the hands of a lesser actress, Viv might only be harsh and abrasive, but McKee lets us see Viv’s insecurities and ensures that there is warmth there, too, and that a real love for her friends underpins all her forthright criticism.
While Outhwaite and McKee both give incredible performances, Anna Maxwell Martin excels: her Rose is endearingly ditsy, frustratingly naive and wonderfully funny. Rose sleeps with eight men in three weeks, judging them to be ‘interesting and different’, and in response to Viv’s accusations claims that she is ‘free’ because she chooses whom she sleeps with. Maxwell Martin demonstrates perfect comic timing (one of the funniest moments is when Rose refers to male and female genitalia as ‘thing and va’) and plays Rose with a winning honesty and openness.
Di and Viv worry about the consequences of Rose’s promiscuity, but at the end of the first half it is actually Di who is the victim of a sexual assault. The scene where Viv and Rose rally round their friend, bringing the mattresses into the living room and creating a tent out of bedsheets and hairclips is achingly sad but also wordlessly encapsulates what is so wonderful about female friendship.
In the second half of the play, Bullmore shifts her focus to the more serious matters affecting women: Rose describes the loneliness of single motherhood as a Sisyphean task; Viv realises that her exclusive focus on her career has led to her isolation; Di’s body declines early on and she’s confined to a wheelchair. There was a collective gasp from the audience at the second tragedy to befall the trio, and, while the first half of Di & Viv & Rose celebrates the forming of intense bonds of friendship, the second half explores just how much effort it takes to maintain those ties over the years, and how little is required to drive people apart. By this point you are so involved in these women’s lives they feel like your friends, and you need their bond to endure just as much as they do.
Paul Wills has created two striking sets: the girls’ student flat is warm and welcoming, filled with bicycles and charmingly ugly furniture; the backdrop to the second half, in which the women have grown up and moved from the university bubble into the big wide world, is minimalist, dark and harsh. Anna Mackmin directed both productions and clearly has a deep love for the material, achieving brilliant performances from her cast on both occasions. The music, too, is worthy of a mention, with 80s stalwarts Prince, Eurythmics and Madonna providing the perfect soundtrack to these women’s lives. The scene where the three students drunkenly dance to Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy is magical.
Di & Viv & Rose is a triumphant celebration of female friendship that is neither mawkish nor sentimental, neither clichéd nor cloying, but refreshingly, gloriously real and heartfelt.