Rachel Gonzalez Boyd thinks The One is a powerful and unsettling study of the disintegration of a modern relationship
The One is the much fêted first play by DryWrite’s Vicky Jones. This troubling story of a modern relationship won the Soho Theatre’s award for best new play by an emerging writer. Completing the set of buzz-creating credentials, the cast is lead by Critics’ Circle award winning actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
The play opens with a sex scene between a comically uninterested couple. This is how we are introduced to Jo (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and Harry (Rufus Wright). They watch porn not facing each other and when even that can’t hold their attention, they move to The Boy Who Gave Birth to His Twin. Jo is a smart, bored twenty-something and Harry is her former professor. They are waiting for Jo’s sister to give birth and passing time in their flat drinking, bickering and negotiating whether Harry can have a week off from their relationship.
Trouble starts when Harry’s friend and ex Kerry (Lu Corfield) arrives. She isn’t sure but thinks that she may have been sexually assaulted by her boyfriend who didn’t seek her consent. Harry and Jo are pretty complacent, more concerned with whether Kerry wants a chocolate finger or a pink wafer. Even Kerry doesn’t seem that sure that it’s anything to be worried about. Harry even says he’s probably a rapist too – he often has sex with Jo when he knows she doesn’t want to.
And so continues their night, descending into ever darker and more complex relationship battlegrounds. Jo is funny and fast: she swears, she doesn’t want kids or marriage, she’s sharp and she doesn’t bother with social niceties. Harry is the edgy intellectual, seeking exciting love and sex yet frustrated by Jo’s lies and disinterest. Their relationship feels driven by a desperate desire not to be boring, yet they are both utterly bored: of their lives, of their past, of each other. They’re both pretty horrible and the audience isn’t invited to have much sympathy for either of them.
So when events get brutal, with Harry’s behaviour becoming more and more abusive and Jo goading him into ever more harmful acts of violence, we are pulled into grey moral areas. Are Jo’s lies and emotional manipulation the equivalent of Harry’s hand around her throat? Are the talk about Jo’s desires for Harry to rape her and his attempts to fulfil this fantasy a liberal and erotic relationship operating outside the bounds of expectations or a mutually destructive one?
Jones’ triumph is her well-crafted ambiguity. She lets the audience laugh at taboo subject matters to immediately twist events into something brutal and horrifying soon after. Just as we’ve all realised it’s serious, she’s back to playing for laughs. None of her characters invites empathy yet it’s pretty obvious they need it. Even Kerry, the only one who could invite our compassion, is a shallow character whose version of romance is about “being yourself” and reaching a stable happiness that comes straight from Hollywood romcoms.
The play describes itself as “viciously funny” and there are comic moments but even they are ambiguous. The audience is responsive to the comedy, while constantly checking whether it’s ok to laugh. At one point, a solo audience member laughs and there is an uncomfortable atmosphere of judgement – but weren’t we joining in a few jokes ago? I was comfortable to laugh at topics that are normally no-go areas for comedy but my partner stayed stony-faced throughout. At one point Kerry asks: “Is this supposed to be funny?” and I can’t help but feel she’s breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience.
There are no easy answers in this play and there’s a direct challenge to the audience in a post-Fifty Shades of Grey world where violence and manipulation is figured as an aspirational and erotic way to defy expectations and play out relationships (with little regard to the reality of BDSM relationships). But there is enough content that allows you to draw your own conclusions, such as the power dynamic of a professor and former student and the points at which Jo’s spirit is broken. There are no easy victims in The One and Jo and Harry seem equal in their horridness, but take into account the gendered aspect of violence and the use of ambiguity to justify and legitimise rape and the inequality is clear.
Both characters end the play broken and brutalised, with their relationship hanging in the balance. The audience seem exhausted and horrified in equal measures. Does this add up to a successful play? The response seems to suggest so. And there’s enough material in the play to spark lots of post-watching analysis of the big topics it deals with. The acting is good, the writing is good, the directing is solid. That ambiguity of morality definitely works.
So do go and watch The One if you get a chance. It’s powerful and unsettling but definitely worth watching for its honest and unflinching approach to the dangers and consequences of relationships where lovers throw out all the rules.
The One is at Soho Theatre until 30 March. There are captioned and audio-described performances. There are post show-discussions on 1 and 15 March.
Photos are by Simon Kane.
Photo 1: A woman lies on a red sofa, looking up at man standing behind the sofa and gripping her wrist. Both hold glasses of wine.
Photo 2: A woman straddles a man sitting on a sofa, facing away from him. She is tossing a wotsit into her mouth.
Photo 2: Two women and a man sit on a sofa – one of the women is sitting on the arm of the sofa. They are in conversation. A table with a tea set and biscuits is in front of them.