The Theatreguide.London Review
Viv And Rose
Hampstead Theatre January-February 2013; Vaudeville Theatre February-March 2015
[Reviewed first at the Hampstead Theatre - scroll down for a review of the 2015 production.]
Amelia Bullmore's play, tried out in an earlier version in Hampstead's downstairs theatre in 2011, follows the lifelong friendship of three women – and if your first reaction is that doesn't seem likely to chart any particularly fresh waters, you're not wrong.
Despite isolated moments of emotional resonance and three charming performances, Di And Viv And Rose is too by-the-numbers to come alive more than intermittently or tell us much about women, friendship or life.
The three characters meet on their first day at university in 1983. Rose (Anna Maxwell Martin) is warm, bubbly, overpoweringly friendly and sexually promiscuous. Di (Tamzin Outhwaite) is an athletic but romantic and looking-for-love lesbian. Viv (Gina McKee) is closed, studious and career-minded.
(Can you spot a problem already? It's a bit like formulaic American war movies of the 1940s, with one guy from Texas, one from Brooklyn, and so on.)
After some brief wariness they decide to move in together, in a house bought for them by a conveniently rich relative. Act One stays with their student days, while Act Two leapfrogs through the subsequent 27 years.
In the course of the play one will be raped, one will drop out of school, one will have a successful and satisfying career, one will be a single mother, one will move to America, one will survive cancer, one will die. And if I seem coy about who gets what fate, it's because it's all really rather random.
Bullmore makes it believable that Life Event X happens to Character A, but not inevitable, and we would probably find it just as acceptable happening to Character B or C, or some other Life Event Y not in the play substituting for one that is. (Is there any real reason one doesn't join a cult or mourn a spouse or win the lottery or change her gender? No.)
Even the inevitable moments of quarrelling and making up, bonding and drifting apart, uniting in happiness or sadness come with formulaic rhythm. You might not predict every detail of the plot – as I noted, details are almost random – but nothing that happens can really surprise you.
And as a result, almost nothing that happens can offer any fresh insight into the dynamics of female friendship, except perhaps their own late discovery of how much this accidental coming-together in their youth shaped the rest of their lives, together and apart.
It's the moments when, somewhat to their own surprise, they feel for each other more than they expected – the other two rallying around the rape victim, the other two mourning the one who dies – that have the strongest dramatic power.
All three actresses work hard to flesh out characters that are pretty much defined in the play's opening moments and not allowed to grow or change much over the decades, and director Anna Mackmin, while capturing the power of some individual scenes, has not guided them very effectively through even the basic task of ageing almost thirty years.
VAUDEVILLE THEATRE, FEBRUARY 2015: The belated West End transfer of Amelia Bullmore's play from its 2013 run at the Hampstead Theatre, with a 2/3 change in cast, gives an opportunity to reconsider my original review (above).
I'm afraid I have little new to say. I didn't re-read my old review before seeing the show again, and I didn't remember all the details of the plot, but my response this time was much the same.
I should note than an at least 80% female audience very much enjoyed this portrait of three women who meet at university, bond, and form friendships that are then tested over the next twenty-five years.
Clearly the various episodes, good and bad, comic and dramatic, resonate as true to other women. But a string of episodes do not a character make, especially when they seem arbitrary.
Bullmore's three characters are somewhat artificially differentiated, each given a tag to define her. Di is a lesbian, Viv is repressed and goal-driven, Rose is jolly and life-loving to the extent of sleeping with every boy she meets.
None of them has much more than that to their character and none really develops much over time. Meanwhile, apart from (spoiler alert!) Rose getting pregnant, there seem little connection between who they are and what happens to them.
It is almost as if Bullmore made a list of Things That Happen To Women, and then distributed them at random among her characters. Why is this one raped and not that one? Why does that one die and not the other? Why does the other have a failed marriage and not this one or that one? Why does one get both a drug-addled mother and a rich stepfather while another seems to have no family at all?
Tamzin Outhwaite remains from the original cast, and her Di is the nearest thing to a rounded characterisation that this revival offers. Jenna Russell is on her way to finding Rose's easy joy of life, but you can still see her working hard at what should seem more natural, and Samantha Spiro's Viv just isn't there at all.
And what I thought in 2013 was a directorial slip-up is evidently deliberate, though I can't see why. Given the choice of casting young actresses who would have to age in Act Two or older actresses who would have to play young in Act One, Anna Mackmin has chosen neither.
Outhwaite, Russell and Spiro are not seventeen, but they don't play seventeen in the early scenes or forty-something in the later ones. Their performances and their characters seem to exist outside of time, neither ageing, maturing or growing (or changing in appearance) in the course of the play.
Viewed as individual moments, there is evidently much truth in the play's catalogue of female experiences. But it is never more than a string of individual moments.
Review -Di And Viv And Rose - Hampstead Theatre 2013; Vaudeville Theatre 2015
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