‘Show me something fucking new.’ Though these words are spoken by Jo, one half of the destructive, abusive couple that forms the focus of The One, Vicky Jones’s award-winning debut play, it’s not hard to imagine Jones or her friend and collaborator Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who plays Jo) using them as their mantra. In 2007, finding themselves frustrated and bored with theatre, Jones and Waller-Bridge formed DryWrite, a new writing theatre company. Challenging themselves, and the writers they work with, to experiment, to push boundaries, to take risks, and to really think about how theatre can reflect our rapidly changing modern lives, so far they have been responsible for two fierce, funny, provocative and challenging plays: Mydidae and Fleabag. Jones directed and Waller-Bridge starred in both, and Waller-Bridge also wrote the latter, for which she received a nomination in this year’s Olivier Awards. Now Jones has turned her hand to writing, and she too has struck gold: The One (which she wrote for, and dedicated to, Waller-Bridge) won the 2013 Verity Bargate Award for new writing and is currently playing at London’s Soho Theatre to rave reviews.
The One is a daringly honest portrait of modern, privileged, intellectual couple. That we never really know what takes place behind closed doors or within others’ relationships is something that inspired Jones to write the play, and she certainly doesn’t flinch from showing us just how cruel relationships can be. Over the course of a single night Harry and Jo derive a sick pleasure in pushing each other’s buttons as they torment, tease, goad and bully one other. Jones isn’t afraid to dramatise behaviour that we all know exists and yet are often afraid to talk about: as Harry and Jo indulge in verbal and physical abuse and mental and emotional torture, we are forced to confront and acknowledge what can occur when a relationship long characterised by frustration and boredom mutates into something far uglier.
Jones has also admitted to being very conscious of our privileged, media-saturated and highly sexualised society in which we often get bored very easily, and this informs The One: can one person really satisfy all our needs; is it asking too much to expect them to; is there too much stimulation in our lives for us to settle for the mundanity of a relationship; do we know too much to ever be anything other than cynical? These are all interesting, perceptive and highly topical questions, and it is wonderful to see them explored in theatre.
However, The One is full of such questions, to the extent it feels burdened by them; it’s as though Jones has thrown everything she has at her first play, offering us in one creative outburst everything she feels ought to be tackled in theatre but perhaps isn’t. Domestic violence; rape; women who watch porn and behave appallingly; issues surrounding contemporary feminism; bullying; dysfunctional relationships that actually make us wonder how normal they might be; sex and relations between the sexes. In posing so many questions so quickly and in such a short space of time (The One is just 75 minutes long), it can feel as though Jones just wants to shock the audience for the sake of it. This is a shame, for The One also exhibits moments of dazzling brilliance, and we need more new writing like it. Jones’s pen can be savage and sharp, but also incredibly funny; she makes you laugh one minute and gasp in horror the next. Moreover, it is testament to the strength and truth of her writing that Harry and Jo, while they do monstrous things to each other, and to others outside their relationship, still maintain their humanity and we feel for them. The third character in the play, Kerry, an old flame and colleague of Harry’s, is important here, for she reminds us what they were like (kind, clever, interesting and even brave) yet also shows us what Harry and Jo are like now (despicable, savage, boring, shells of human beings). At one point she asks the question on everyone’s lips: ‘Who wants to live like this?’ Yet Jones’s portrait of Harry and Jo is so convincing that you can understand that they are trapped, that they are afraid of change, that they have reached a point where they hate themselves and cannot believe that they will find that mutual understanding with anyone else. And who are we, after all, to judge whether they are unhappy?
Unfortunately, Steve Marmion’s direction does not enhance the play. On the contrary, it cheapens it, both treating the audience like simpletons (reminding us, by having the characters empty wine bottles over the side of the stage and turn the hands of a large clock affixed to the rear wall, that the action takes place over one night) and reducing the complexity of Harry and Jo’s relationship by playing music from Phantom of the Opera and choosing a starry sky as a backdrop. There is also some unsuccessful blocking and some very strange dance-like sequences between scenes. As a result, the director and his choices become too much of a presence on-stage, and the emphasis he places on certain aspects of Harry and Jo’s relationship (their pugilism, the idea that this is a game to them), overshadows the nuances of what Jones is trying to articulate.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, so brilliant at playing complicated, contradictory women, is on top form again as the witty, cruel and intelligent Jo. Rufus Wright as Harry simply cannot match her, and yet, perhaps this is the point, for she constantly emasculates him, and delights in telling him so. Yet, mesmerising as she is, I fear Waller-Bridge is in danger of being typecast. So eager are she and Jones for strong parts for women that they’re writing or commissioning plays featuring the women they feel theatre lacks, but so far they’ve all been worryingly similar; Jo is uncomfortably close to the character Waller-Bridge played in Fleabag. It would be illuminating to see what another actress might bring to Jo.
The One is not without its flaws, yet as a debut play it is frequently exhilarating and refreshing. It is bold and brave and isn’t afraid to challenge accepted opinions. It will be interesting to see what Jones writes next.