The name and peppy marketing of this new West End transfer, coming to the Vaudeville after a journey that started at the Hampstead Theatre in 2011, threatens (or promises) a kind of British Golden Girls: a blissful twilight camaraderie. The program tells a different story, with historical essays on friendship that include Samuel Johnson’s gout-soured meditation on the endless ways that they can be broken. Playwright Amelia Bullmore has crafted a wry, uneven look at how unlikely alliances solidify and crack over decades. Here, it’s been polished to an artificial sitcom brightness, with a sunny celebrity cast.
We start at freshers week in 1980s Manchester, where an infuriatingly bouncy Rose (played like an inflated toddler by Jenna Russell) is thrilled to bits to be at university. Her standoffish neighbour Viv (Samantha Spiro) “dresses like it’s the war” in 40s finery. And Di is an unexamined cliché of a sporty lesbian: Tamsin Outhwaite looks like she’s on the lam from the law in an ill-fitting assemblage of black running gear. They’re archetypes who barely soften as they settle in: first to university, then into each others’ company in a house they rent from Rose’s stepdad.
There were plenty of chuckles of recognition as we watched the three set up haphazard home in Moss Side, nesting in mounds of cast off furniture and ill-planned bargains. Rose is hoodwinked into buying wobbly yellow bowls, and makes bizarre vegetarian meals for the three which frighten then charm them through their lavish use of fresh coriander and grated carrot.
We see them learn to love each other through quarrels, crises and hungover slumps. Rose talks of sex in graphic terms only undermined by her genital euphemisms of choice, “p” and “vah”. Di unsuccessfully pursues women at “the lesbian table” with a cheerful confidence in her unexamined identity that seems unlikely, especially for an 18 year old in 1983. And Viv greets their antics with faint horror, or strong analysis: she’s a sociology student who can pick everyone to pieces but holds herself as rigidly as the historical corsets she’s writing her dissertation on.
The first half of this play builds these women. The second half destroys them in a hectic series of twists. It’s frustrating seeing them so chaotically and swiftly broken: any one of their traumas could have taken the whole second act to unravel. The audience murmured discomfitedly through the narrative’s darker turns: pairs and groups of female friends passing judgement on the unusually ill-fated trio on stage.
Like these women’s friendships, director Anna Mackmin’s disjointed production feels like it’s been weakened, not strengthened by passing years. The transitions between scenes are awkwardly marked by unexpected darknesses and ill-fitting gimmicks, like years projected onto the uneven back wall to mark passing time.
Opting for a cast of musical theatre and soap opera veterans doesn’t fit either. They burlesque the young women in a kind of schoolgirl camp that’s at odds with the authenticity of the blasts of female-fronted ska and punk music between scenes, and too thin to believably weather the crises they share.
This play’s compendium of joys and dramas is a little overstuffed even by Samuel Johnson’s standards. But inhabiting it with women that stick like dictionary definitions to their characters doesn’t do much to make us feel, as well as see, their friendship’s enduring meaning.
Exeunt’s review of Di and Viv and Rose at Hampstead Theatre.