I never really did Friends. Yet, even I know what happened to Ross and Rachel. Why? Because these powerful narratives become the stitches in the fabric of our lives; they’re our modern myths and fairytales, keeping us on the right path. We understand their dubious veracity, but still can’t resist their power. They offer a simple answer to the complex problem of life.
The perfect couple. The One. Happy-ever-after. Like religion, it’s demonstrably silly, yet we willingly believe. It’s a lie skillfully eviscerated by James Fritz in his Edinburgh Fringe-wowwing one-woman play Ross & Rachel, which charts the caustic end of a perfect couple, cleverly playing off the Friends’ lovers plot points. But this no rom-com fanfic. This is what happens when the fairytale meets real life; what happens when the fantasy is over.
Amazing Molly Vever stalks a stage which is almost occultish in its simplicity, a shallow circle of water surrounded by tea light, shoeless in a dressing down. A ritual exorcism, maybe? Barefoot and vulnerable, she guides us on a troubling tour behind the scenes of this perfect couple’s performance of a life, as she spits forth the fractured thoughts of both halves of the whole.
In the bits between the plot points, this relationship is a yawning void. He’s not interested in her job, they’ve nothing in common apart from being ‘a perfect couple’. As they head towards their tragic conclusion or, as Not-Ross would see it, The One With the Perfect Ending, the clever pop-culture references offer gentle pointers towards the artifice of the relationship myth: they’re acting out a story of themselves for public consumption, but also for themselves.
Not-Ross is a nerd. His nauseating mantra is: ‘She’s a prom queen and she’s with me’. For him, Not-Rachel is an object, an accomplishment. He’s overbearing, controlling. Their friends think they’re the perfect couple. And it bores Not-Rachel to tears: she dreams of a work tryst, of a life without an ‘and’ before her name, of connecting directly to the world as a singular entity.
Not-Ross is a walking tragedy whose sense of identity and self-worth is dominated by external factors: as one half of the perfect couple; of his considerable academic success; of his objective value, seen through the eyes of others. Not-Ross is probably miserable, if he wasn’t too busy being perfect to notice. We all know a Not-Ross. It’s brutal, but not all bleak. Rachel heartingly imagines a future of aloneness that is not loneliness, of control and fulfilment.
It’s smart stuff. Ross & Rachel drags our pre-determined cultural norms across the coals and then heads off the cliff and plunges into the fiery pit of the idea of identity itself. Why do we care more about other people’s perception of our happiness than our actual happiness?
Fritz skillfully dances along a fine line when it comes to pop culture references. They’re fleeting and illuminating for those in the know, while never being overbearing or obfuscating for those who spent the 90s doing something useful with themselves or, indeed, not existing.
This not-so-perfect, nameless couple crawl vividly from under the weight of their overarching narrative to become much more than the characters that inspired them. Molly Vevers’ unfaltering energy and likeability adds a comforting layer of softness and clarity to what is a harsh vision of modern love, offering a masterful humanising of a fractious monologue. Director Thomas Martin bravely allows the focus to fall relentlessly inward on this surface-obsessed pair by leaving the words to carry the full weight of meaning. For Not-Ross and Not-Rachel – and for the audience – this is performance that leaves nowhere to hide.
Ross & Rachel was on as part of Incoming Festival. For more of their programme, click here.