Before I’ve even started recording, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who is here a little before her cohort Vicky Jones, has already got me convinced. She has a way of speaking that’s both exuberantly extroverted and delightfully conspiratorial, so that conversing with her is like catching up with a best friend you’ve never met. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited about a play…ever.” Waller-Bridge grins, and her excitement is utterly infectious. When Jones arrives, she and Waller-Bridge form a chatty and charming duo, and I learn it’s that exact sense of shared energy which spurred The One in the first place. “It was Phoebe telling me again and again that I could be a writer,” Jones explains, “that made me sit down and give it a go, really. ”
If The One – Vicky Jones’ Verity Bargate award-winning first play about a couple intoxicated by, and toxic for, each other – is no idyllic love story, then Waller-Bridge and Jones’ long-standing creative partnership certainly might be. “It’s the greatest love story every told..” Waller-Bridge jokes, but the tale is quite genuinely heart-warming. Whilst assisting on a disastrous theatre project, Jones had her confidence crushed and was eventually fired by a ‘vicious’ director. In protest, Waller-Bridge (who was Jones’ only contribution to the casting process, fresh out of RADA “when no-one would touch me with a barge pole”) walked out of rehearsals as well, an act of solidarity that would form the basis of “a wonderful friendship” and an astonishingly generative (never mind critically acclaimed) creative power house. “We were both frustrated by the industry, by our inability to access it in the ways that we wanted – and that event just galvanised both of us because we knew then that we wanted to make our own work. It was like falling in love,” Jones insists, “because everything about it has changed my life, and made me know who I am as a person and artist.”
Throughout the anecdotes, they giggle, but it would be entirely disingenuous to present this duo as less than serious about their work. “It’s about being able to have a sense of humour,” Jones confirms, but the vision they share is bold, innovative and uncompromising. New writing company Drywrite was formed on the basis of their shared desire for truthful, funny and risk-taking writing, biting back at what they see as tired tropes and forms.
“We’re easily bored,” admits Jones, “We always think things could move quicker and they could go further.” They’re also keen to foreground representations of real people, and, with particular fervour, transgressive, complex women. “I very much wanted to write the kind of woman that I thought was good enough- (“…and bad enough”, interjects Waller-Bridge) “and bad enough for Phoebe to play. We’ve been thinking so much recently that roles for women on-stage tend to be slightly more archetypal – you know: Virgin/Mother/Whore, and if they’re badly behaved then they have these reasons for their bad behaviour – they were abused or they desperately want children or want to be married, always trauma of some kind.. I was not interested in writing that – with The One, I wanted to write a woman who was just brilliant, who said all the things that I would’ve liked to have said, and who behaved as badly and worse, as women around me and I have, in truth.”
After forming Drywrite in 2007, Jones has since directed Waller-Bridge in Jack Thorne’s blistering two-hander Mydidae, as well as Waller-Bridge’s own debut Fringe hit Fleabag (which we reviewed in Edinburgh), the one-woman tour-de-force that ripped gender assumptions to shreds and threw them into the air like filthy, joyous confetti. “It was with Phoebe’s voice very clearly in my head,” Jones tells me, that she wrote the character of Jo in The One, “..and I really wrote it to make Phoebe laugh, to do something that was good enough for her wicked sense of humour” As I suspect, Waller-Bridge had read the play in its early stages, so did she know, even then, that it was..the one? “It’s a precious moment when someone you know gives you their work. When I was reading it, I was blown away that Vicky managed to articulate everything she’d wanted to see in theatre for so long – I knew I’ve never read anything like this before and I was struck by this overwhelming rush, I need to do it and I need to be in it, no matter what, this is happening! Then the archangel Verity Bargate came down and made it all possible. “Heaven-sent,” agrees Jones.
The pair seem to enjoy remaining secretive about the play, clearly reluctant to give away too much, and even Soho’s promotional synopsis is tantalisingly brief. As a result, there’s a rather delicious air of mystery surrounding The One. Based on the pair’s previous collaborations, it seems safe to assume it’s going to be playful, sharp, and furiously funny. Comedy is, they both emphasise, a crucial weapon in their work. “We wouldn’t dare say any of the things that we dare to say,” Jones explains, “without trying to make them funny, without finding a comic edge.” It’s Waller-Bridge who introduces that ‘weapon’ idea: “Comedy is utterly essential,” she asserts, “it’s a great way of distracting an audience, by saying ‘look at this’ and the audience laugh, with their wide eyes and open mouths and open hearts, thinking ‘I like this person, they’re making me laugh!’..just as you’re lining up the arrow..”
“What I was always saying before these rehearsals,” Jones, when I ask about her process, “was that The One is about ‘two people that shouldn’t be together, but can’t leave each other’ but..now I don’t even know if that’s true..!” There’s a slight pause. “Maybe they should be together,” Waller-Bridge suggests, and the pair share a brief, genuinely troubled look. “I’m kind of horrified,” Jones continues, “by the way that I, and most people, have acted in relationships, and I’ve always been fascinated by relationships, because they’re a mystery, aren’t it? We hold things so in secret when we’re in one.” The One, then, seems to offer us a glimpse behind doors usually kept firmly closed. “What we’re always interested in is truth,” Jones emphasises, “We all have our moments, and I’m interested in those moments, in the way that all the work we’ve done is interested in being quite dangerous, in pushing at the boundaries of human connections. How bad can it get, and how bad can it be? Yet, whilst there are little moments that come from ex-relationships, from kernels of truth, then you exaggerate – you go to the worst places and find the darkest points.”
“I think it’s about two people missing each other,” Waller-Bridge continues, “Always missing the middle ground. Because however well-suited two humans can be, they’re still different humans, from different tribes, from different worlds, so it’s that desperate attempt to be one, and the fact that inevitably that will never, ever ever work. Jo and Harry are an example of how close people can get to being perfect to each other and then how far away they can be in the same moment..” Jones offers that ‘they both secretly think they wont find anyone else in their lifetime that good at this ‘banter’, at this game they play together, because they think they’re special and that’s the trouble. It is a cautionary tale, I think, because by the end, you want to think, “I never will behave like that”. Anyone can tear strips off people, anyone can humiliate and undermine someone else, but in the end, well, perhaps Jo and Harry don’t win.”
Before the play’s central pairing are painted as a little too despicable, Waller-Bridge is keen to clarify that “they’re a fantastic firework display of a couple. I know we’ve really been talking about the monstrosities that occur in relationships, but of course, to be particularly cruel to somebody and get away with it, you have to trust that there’s a love there. What’s amazing about them is that you kind of want to be them..but you’re scared of them. They’re quite wonderful, but that makes it more heart-breaking when they are so cruel.”
My final attempt at to glean an inside scoop on the play is to ask them, if The One was put on as part of a ‘DryWrite presents:’ night, (previous nights include Funny/Not Funny and The Mob) what would the title be? “This was a game we used to play,” Jones beams nostalgically, “sitting for hours, getting drunk and thinking of briefs..” Waller-Bridge is giving it serious thought. “Well, Drywrite presents The One is a great title, but..” – she muses for a moment and then, with a devious grin, declares “Drywrite presents: Stop it…I Like It.” Jones is ecstatic, “Yes! That’s our answer!” and the pair collapse in uproarious laughter. Make of that what you will..
The One is at Soho Theatre from 20th February – 30th March 2014