The One is a bit hard to take in. Not in the sense of being difficult or offensive, though it is both of those things, but in the specific context in which it was created and is performed. It’s got a lot of baggage. There’s Fleabag for a start, the brilliant monologue play performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and directed by her friend, colleague and author of The One Vicky Jones. The One seems to come from a similar place, though it’s both more diffuse and more vicious. Then there’s the Verity Bargate Award for best new play which it deservedly won and there’s the peculiar production that it’s been given by Steve Marmion that frames it in baroque knowingness. Baggage. Psychological clutter. It’s unfortunate because it has the effect of obscuring the play, and the play is very good indeed. If Waller-Bridge could be surgically attached to it for the rest of time and cast in every revival on pain of the director’s death, it might even be considered a masterpiece.
Jones’ debut play is essentially a portrait of a dysfunctional couple, written with agonising insightfulness and a fearless swagger. It says things that shouldn’t be said, does things that shouldn’t be done, is something that usually, thankfully, isn’t. There was quite a lot of gasping when Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag first came out; the opening moments of The One reduced the audience to an assembly of Koi Carp.
Harry (Rufus Wright) is a middle-aged English professor who probably used to be sort of cool once but is essentially now a pseudy prick and he’s been in a relationship with his ex-student Jo (Waller-Bridge) for a number of years. Jo is a total fucking monster. At times you wonder if it’s just that she’s wearing so many layers of character armour that whatever it was that was once inside her has died, but that’s probably just to make yourself feel better. These are both almost entirely horrible people, and they spend a long night waiting up for news of Jo’s sister’s expected labour. Their lives have become irrevocably twisted by one another, but they have twisted together too, as the unexpected arrival of Harry’s old colleague Kerry (Lu Corfield) is doomed to prove.
The play it most closely resembles is Pinter’s criminally neglected The Lover. It has the same sense of suffocating mutual dependence and is even more eloquent on the queasy power dynamics of sex – that sense that any relationship can be boiled down to a series of negotiated rules for fucking and not dying alone. But The Lover didn’t have Jo in it …
Waller-Bridge is flat-out spectacular in the role that was presumably written for her. Inexhaustibly cruel and absolutely magnetic, she somehow never descends into grotesque, she remains credibly alive even in the slightly overdone ending. Corfield is also pitch-perfect as the gentle, normal Kerry, though there’s something about Wright’s performance as Harry that doesn’t quite ring true. It’s not bad exactly, it just doesn’t satisfactorily match up to the text.
The same is true of Marmion’s production. From the twilight tinged scene changes to the fairy-tale touches in Anthony Lamble’s set, it all seems to belong with a different play. It’s unneccesary, basically, it’s too lush and it both softens and confuses the text. While Jones works to hotbox the room, Marmion keeps opening the bloody window. His work with the performers is fantastic, but the accoutrements he’s added are unwelcome.
But the play shines through. When The One is at its very darkest and its most brutal a question hovers over it: why? It’s doing a very nasty thing about very nasty people, it’s relationship angst played on an atomic scale (atomic like atomic bomb atomic), so why should we bother putting ourselves through it?
Because it’s incredibly, lawlessly funny, for one thing. Because, alongside Fleabag, it is deeply and seriously engaged with femininity and feminism in the contemporary world. And because, even in its considerable magnitude of nastiness, it speaks truthfully about relationships, sex and mutual dependency. In its willingness to say the unsayable it brings theatre one step closer to life, where the unsayable is said and the unthinkable is thunk all the time. Like Fleabag, it’s going to make an awful lot of other plays look pallid, mealy-mouthed and, frankly, just a bit boring.