Ross is eye-bulgingly panicky. He’s listening to an answer-machine message of Rachel arguing frantically with a flight attendant. She’s trying to get off a plane, the one that’s supposed to take her to Paris to start a new life.
Then, the phone beeps and the message cuts out.
Ross yells frantically at the receiver in his hand. “Oh my God. Did she get off the plane? Did she get off the plane?”
Beat. (WE ALL HOLD OUR BREATH.)
“I got off the plane.”
And there she is, a gorgeous Hollywood miracle. Because, of course, in this brightly coloured world, nothing means anything unless it’s at the last minute. Their eyes lock. They pause, then rush into each other’s arms.
After ten years of getting together and breaking up, somehow having a baby in one plot contrivance, TV’s golden couple get their happy ending. The hysterical joy of the studio audience present for the recording of the final episode of Friends blares out of TVs worldwide.
But then what?
After the credits have faded to black for the last time, after we’ve all moved on to the next will-they-won’t-they relationship, what might life look like for this fairytale sitcom romance if it just… carried on?
This question gnawed away at playwright James Fritz, resulting in Ross and Rachel, a critical hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, now about to embark on a tour that starts – aptly – in New York as part of 59E9 Theatres’ annual Brits Off-Broadway festival. As well as director Thomas Martin, actress Molly Vevers will be returning to the play.
This bitingly funny, but also painfully raw and honest monologue divided between two characters (who, importantly, are never named) explores the contradictions of our idealised view of love. It delves into the darker implications of giving up everything for someone.
“We have these classical romances, Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde, and it’s just like that,” Fritz, 28, argues animatedly over coffee at the Soho Curzon. He’s a disarming mess of hair, humour and chatty thoughtfulness.
Fritz is returning to the play after a stellar few months in which his Hampstead Theatre transfer, Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, wowed the critics at Trafalgar Studios and the Evening Standard declared him one of its ‘fresh faces of 2016’.
In spite of this, his enthusiasm for Ross and Rachel is undimmed. Now the show is back, he’s enjoying having the opportunity to reflect some more on it.
This is partly because he’s an unapologetic sitcom super-fan. After the interview, we linger to chat and he discusses in online forum-board detail scenes from Friends and How I Met Your Mother, tracing their lineage back to the likes of Cheers. He’s a connoisseur of that branch of TV history.
“I don’t want the play to be snide,” Fritz insists. “The reason I was able to write it at all was because I’m immersed in that sort of show and rom-coms in general. I’ve been watching them my whole life. We keep going back to that well because it’s such a satisfying narrative.”
But we should “question the language of the stories,” Fritz continues, “that concept of romantic destiny” and expressions like ‘you complete me’ or ‘you belong to me’. “Even One Direction has a song, ‘She Belongs to Me’, he muses. “Defining someone as complete when they’re with someone else implies they’re only half a person by themselves.”
With Friends crystalizing, for Fritz, this trajectory in US sitcoms from the 80s, ‘Ross and Rachel’ was an ideal title. It captures a zeitgeist. “Say those three words and people might never have seen an episode, but by cultural osmosis, they know what it means,” he says. “They might not know the ins-and-outs, but they know it represents this concept of the couple that was always meant to be together.”
“Mental” is how he describes Rachel’s decision not to go Paris at the end of Friends, as “she probably has the best character arc of any of them, in terms of development, from season 1 to season 10. She’s been offered her dream job – and it’s a running thing that she’s always wanted to go to France – and she ditches it for an old boyfriend.”
Fritz sees this as the result of a TV show that has to keep storylines going for many years, while negotiating plots that often travel a long way from their origins. “After ten seasons of them not being great to each other, they have to get these two people in completely different places back together.”
Fritz has taken this narrative reset and crafted it into a story of a couple stifled by their community-willed perfectness, their own lives overtaken by a goal we are all schooled to aspire to. “The language of love sets everybody up for failure in a way,” he argues. “And it teaches people that it’s kind of OK to be obsessive or controlling.”
The show’s evolution into a one-woman duologue started with “the producer, Andy, talking to me about maybe writing a monologue for Edinburgh,” says Fritz. From there, he felt that “using that solo was a good way of embodying that concept of togetherness, of being completed by another person – unifying two characters into one body on stage.”
But Fritz worried that it wouldn’t work – that people wouldn’t get it. And while an early reading “clarified a lot of what was wrong with what we were doing,” he says, “we had very little time to preview it. So the first night in Edinburgh was the first time we’d done it properly.” He grins at the memory of the craziness of that period.
Fritz modestly attributes much of Ross and Rachel’s eventual success to Vevers and director Thomas Martin: “They’ve made something that feels alive, I think, and quite fluid,” he says, “which meant that people were taking, like, 80 different readings out of that venue every night.”
He enjoys the rehearsal room collaboration of working on a play. “If I’m there, I’ll always tweak it and always ask questions of the people in that room,” he says. “When you’re making something for the first time, the script almost feels secondary to creating a performance together.”
It’s different this time, because Ross and Rachel has been published. “It’s definitely a thing, an artefact, and that makes me feel slightly differently about it,” Fritz reflects. However, with rehearsals about to start again shortly after we meet, he suspects some tweaking will happen.
“When you’re making something for the first time, there’s never been an audience reaction,” he says. “So it’s impossible not to bring that back with you.” On the flip side, there were jokes he hated in Four Minutes Twelve Seconds that he kept in for its second run. “They still make me cringe,” he mock grimaces. “But they got laughs.”
With Ross and Rachel, “there will inevitably be things we change, and do differently,” Fritz continues. “We also had a very clear venue we were making it for last time – that super-hot box.” He laughs. “People kept fainting towards the end, and I was, ‘Yeah, it’s the power of the play.’ Not because it was, like, 35 degrees outside.”
Fritz’s hope for the tour – supported by audience reactions to the show during its Edinburgh run – is that people will bring the experiences of their own lives to the theatre. Bolstered by “the legwork” done by the title, he’d like Ross and Rachel to “make them think twice about the language of love and the myths we believe so readily.”
How does he feel about touring to Ross and Rachel’s onscreen home city? “I’m super excited about it.” This will be the first of his plays to have been staged abroad. “Hopefully, having this Scottish actor re-telling this riff on American pop culture will create a nice frisson.”
It’s important to Fritz that Vevers speaks in her own accent. “I think the play should always be done in a performer’s natural accent,” he says. “It should never be about impersonating; it should be how whoever that person, in that room, reads those characters.”
Before New York, Fritz will do a ten-day residency at the BANFF Playwrights Colony in Canada. This came about via Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, where, last November, his play Parliament Square won a Judge’s Award as part of 2015’s Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. “They’re sending me to a cabin in the woods. I saw The Revenant a few weeks ago and I’m scared of all the bears now,” he jokes.
Later in the year, in July and August, Fritz will also be on attachment to the National Theatre, in its new work department. “I can’t wait,” he enthuses. “And I get an office! My little room is so tiny. I’ve squeezed a desk into a corner and keep all my papers on my bed.”
Currently, as well as gearing up for Ross and Rachel, he’s writing a play for the National Youth Theatre, rooted in workshops he did last year. “We’re not really sure what it is yet,” he smiles, “but it’s great fun.” He wasn’t sure what to expect, but ended up with “a group of such enthusiastic, talented young people,” he says. “I threw all sorts of weird stuff into the room and they embraced it readily.”
Things are clearly going well for Fritz at the moment – something he appreciates hugely. “This is the first year where I’ve predominantly been able to earn my money from playwriting,” he says, semi-wonderingly. “I kind of never thought it would happen. It’s wonderful, getting up every day and knowing you’re being paid to do the thing you love.”
Ross and Rachel will be at the Brits Off-Broadway Festival 17 May – 5 June. It then tours the UK, starting with the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, on 17 June, followed by the Battersea Arts Centre, London; The Old Fire Station, Oxford; The Lowry, Manchester; Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol; Incoming Festival, New Diorama, London; and Hotbed Festival, Cambridge Junction.
For more information, and to book tickets, see: www.producedbymotor.co.uk