The beauty of James Fritz’s compact new play, debuting in Edinburgh, is that it’s more than just a string of clever allusions to Friends; it’s the way he sticks a knife into a sitcom-styled happy-ever-after to tear a bleeding hole in all of the stories we tell ourselves to make our relationships work in spite of our doubts. It’s a fiercely sharp yet tender anatomy of the lie of love.
Molly Vevers delivers a duologue – the voices and thoughts of ‘Ross’ and ‘Rachel’ (although they’re never named). It’s a counter-play of her growing disillusionment and his false optimism, as their picture-perfect relationship cracks without the saving grace of a time-freezing credit sequence to hide their issues.
Fritz deftly weaves the weight of other people’s expectations – equally a TV audience or friends and family – into the pressure to be a happy couple. This play is as much about our need for the fairy-tale to be true as it is for Ross. We crave the consoling clichés, the geek who gets the girl in the end. It’s all about the image. Ross’s continued ignorance of their differences as people is claustrophobically relentless.
Thomas Martin keeps a tight leash on his production’s tone, pulling back on sentimentality to emphasise the bruised, dull pain of Ross and Rachel’s situation. And Alison Neighbour’s effectively simple set – a pool of water ringed by tea-lights – is an allusively domestic space, for reflection, which gestures at Rachel’s desire to wash away the past few years.
Vevers is superb, telling a dozen different stories with a slight flinch or with too-loud pride in her voice. Her skill is in always keeping the characters distinct emotionally. And when dissatisfaction becomes crisis, when Ross is diagnosed with brain cancer, she brings to life the mess of guilt, anger and frustration that anchors the tender fragility of the play’s final moments.
Here, death is rightly shorn of the sitcom hallmarks of reconciliation and bedside confessionals. It’s sharp and staccato, a breaking down and a loop of words; a time of desperate suggestions and flailing sympathy. Illness doesn’t sanctify and there’s something profoundly, organically sad in Ross’s and Rachel’s fantasies of life without each other. His feverish imagining of the perfect suicide pact is savagely well written.
If you’re a Friends aficionado, the in-jokes are in there if you know your episodes. They sharpen the piece’s acerbic irony, including Ross’s infamous ‘We were on a break’. But even if you don’t know your Central Park from your Central Perk, you’ll realise just how ubiquitous the comic architecture of ‘true’ love that so bitterly underscores this play has become. It’s what we’ve come to look for. And that’s incredibly fucking depressing.