C/T Review: Contact.Com, Park Theatre

One Of Us / Theatre / Words

16 Jan 15

Contact.com is the story of two London couples who decide, for reasons that aren’t particularly clear or salient, that they should swap partners. One couple is a pair of fresh-out-of-Waitrose, educated, older professionals, the other south-of-the-river, blue-collar commoners. They meet. Hilarity ensues.

Opening in the north London home of husband and wife Matthew (played by Jason Durr, who looks really distractingly like Gary Barlow) and Naomi, who chose careers over kids, we see the couple nervously awaiting the arrival of Kelly, who is played by Charlie Brooks of Eastenders fame, and Ryan. It transpires, not very subtly, that they are meeting to swap partners and have sex. If you’d asked a GCSE drama class to show you what an awkward meeting looked like, I imagine it would be pretty similar to the opening scene: stunted conversations, misunderstandings, shuffling around, the whole textbook. There has clearly been an attempt at portraying natural conversation: “Not…” “What?” “What I mean is…” “…Yes?” but it sadly misses the mark. As a result, the lines throughout the play often feel as though they are being read.

Following the exchange of greetings, the couples sit down to a home-cooked meal and, for a while, the action becomes much more naturalistic and, as a result, funny. Matthew asks shop worker Kelly if her dress is made of French crepe, she corrects him, “slinky viscose”. Ryan spends the meal trying to show that he can drizzle-with-balsamic-glaze like the best of them, complimenting Naomi on the well-balanced flavours of the “supper”.

While I can’t deny that it’s amusing to see the meeting of two worlds played out, it’s disappointing that, like this, so much of the script relies on stereotypes and easy humour. And that, ultimately, is the downfall of the whole play. The characters are wafer-thin. It’s not until halfway through the second act that we really get to the crux of the story – what’s brought all these people to want to have sex with a stranger and allow their partner to do the same. And the reasons, like the characters themselves, don’t seem particularly believable.

Kelly and Ryan owe money so they sought out an older, and therefore rich, couple who they could persuade to hand over money in exchange for moving into their house and becoming a continuous source of sexual pleasure. And, judging by the lack of hand-wringing, suppressed motives or clues of psychotic tendencies on the couple’s part, that’s a totally normal thing to do. Matthew is having a midlife yearning for younger women and Naomi, who still secretly feels guilty about an affair with a coworker, doesn’t feel she can object.

The couples would have been so much more interesting had the script not relied on their characterisation stemming from the dichotomy between their backgrounds. Instead of rounded, well-conceived and interesting individuals, we see trite stereotypes of rich and poor, middle and working class, refined and uncultured. And there doesn’t appear to be any reason for this save for sparing the trouble of having to imagine and convey four actual people.

Towards the end of the play, we begin to see the unravelling of Naomi’s life. This is one of the most captivating parts of the whole performance and that is down, in no small part, to the skill of Tanya Franks.

There are parts of the play that are genuinely funny. The audience will catch a natural, off-hand gesture that they instantly recognise, seeing reality reflected back at them. It’s for moments like that that people return to art in all of its forms and it’s moments like that in which you realise that the four actors on stage are each hugely capable. Unfortunately, they are held back by a poorly executed script.

Exposition is clumsy, with backstories and contextual details torpedoing into the middle of dialogue, the characterisation is lazy and lacks depth and, overall, the play sits uncomfortably between comedy and Belfast-kitchen-sink drama. If you’re looking for easy and light entertainment then Contact.com is perfectly adequate, but the script let down a talented troupe of actors and, what could have been, an interesting plot.