My bedroom window provides an excellent vantage point for people watching on our street of terraced houses. There’s the angry man who once shouted at a delivery driver, a nice old lady who gets a weekly fancy veg box and always talks to political campaigners, and a man and woman who I’ve decided are carers because they never seem to have their keys.
Mrs Delgado, Mike Bartlett’s new monologue, is premised upon the stories we invent about the people who live around us, a pastime that went into overdrive during lockdown when worlds shrunk to the radius of a daily walk. Helen watches her neighbour Mrs Delgado from the window of her flat. While Helen is taking grim delight in sticking to the letter of the social distancing rules, her elderly neighbour Mrs Delgado is not, flagrantly inviting visitors into her house and even hugging the delivery driver. Helen decides that Mrs Delgado must be stopped and mounts a campaign of intercepting deliveries to save Mrs Delgado from herself.
Through Helen and Mrs Delgado’s confrontation, Bartlett explores not just differing attitudes to lockdown but also different ideas of social responsibility. While Helen characterises Mrs Delgado’s bending of the rules as a disregard for the health of the community, Mrs Delgado finds Helen’s concern for her paternalistic and misguided. Mrs D’s idea of care is forging connections between people – a problem when, as Bartlett aptly puts it, social contact becomes infectious. Twenty-something Helen, on the other hand, longs for community (as she explains in a slightly unconvincing rant about the evils of capitalism) but has not bothered to introduce herself to her neighbours.
Bartlett captures the banality of lockdown life through close observation, laced with comic turns of phrase. Ellen Robertson’s deadpan delivery brings out the humour in these excruciatingly awkward situations, from the opening lines of the monologue, when Helen turns down a promising sexual encounter not because she doesn’t want to but because it’s against the rules. There is a kind of pleasure in judging other people; Robertson as Helen captures this ambivalent glee, listing Mrs Delgado’s visitors and how precisely they have broken the rules. Watching Mrs Delgado becomes compulsive, for Helen and the audience.
Yet, although the monologue seems to start from Helen’s point of view, Mrs Delgado steals the show. Robertson’s Mrs Delgado voice is rich and deep, delivering alarmingly penetrating insights into Helen’s life and character (because, of course, Mrs Delgado watches back). Not only has she seen Helen take drugs and have one-night stands through the blinds pre-lockdown, but she also diagnoses Helen with a bad case of loneliness. In Mrs Delgado’s view, Helen’s fervour for enforcing lockdown rules is based on the logic that, because she has no-one, neither should anyone else. Quickly Mrs Delgado and what she represents – community, friendship, fun – come to seem the more attractive choices over Helen’s priggish, rule-bound existence.
As the monologue went on, I found myself both losing sympathy for Helen and being troubled by this loss of sympathy; she is, after all, following the rules to try to protect herself and her neighbours from a deadly virus. Yet Mrs Delgado’s empathy bridges the gap between the two characters’ seemingly irreconcilable perspectives; she does not merely observe Helen, she sees her for who she is and likes her anyway.
Director Clare Lizzimore allows the script to be the centre of attention, embracing the magic of the theatrical encounter between actor and audience. Robertson sits at a table with a cup of tea on an otherwise bare stage. Gradually, as Helen’s world expands a little, the sounds of an illicit street party (organised by Mrs Delgado, of course) leak in through Jon Ouin’s sound design. The party sets the scene for a virtuosic piece of writing – a mesmerising description of Mrs D’s flamenco dance – that provides a moment of escapism from the suburban street that Bartlett has conjured. A deft final twist in narrative perspective at the end of the monologue suggests that while stories can bring people together, writers may always be on the outside looking in.
Mrs Delgado is on at the Old Firestation till 21st December. More info here.