Writer: Amelia Bullmore
Director: Anna Mackmin
Reviewer: Ian Foster
When the Hampstead Theatre first opened the Michael Frayn space downstairs, it was designed as an experimental space for plays to be put on free from critical view. People still pay to see a range of shows from new writers but no reviews appear in the press, rather the opinions of the audience are sought to help shape the theatrical product free from the larger commercial pressures of a main house run. And now the project is coming to full fruition as the Hampstead achieves its first internal transfer with this new run of Amelia Bullmore’s Di and Viv and Rose – slightly rewritten, somewhat recast, but still remarkable.
First premiering in the autumn of 2011, Bullmore’s tale of the intertwining fates of three friends is one of those all too rare things, a play about women, written by a woman and directed by one too, Anna Mackmin. But although the gender of the protagonists certainly has a rôle to play, there’s a universality to the playwright’s exploration of how friendships, forged here in the heady vibrancy of university-based freedom, can endure many a trial and tribulation, not only of student life but of the real world that follows, of partners, babies, jobs and death.
Starting in 1983, the three young women are thrust together by the vagaries of the halls of residence system and though different in temperament and character, an affinity builds between them and so their second year sees them move into a house-share. Anna Maxwell Martin’s Rose is a sensationally good performance, full of a youthful vitality and an openness that embraces both spiritual and physical connection, as much as she can grab. Gina McKee’s more brusque Viv is almost entirely focused on her study and in battling against gender constructs rather than connecting with the opposite sex. And Tamzin Outhwaite (the sole returner from the original cast) is a feisty Di, finally able to embrace her lesbianism – even if only in term time – and probably the most forthright of the trio.
And Bullmore takes us through their university experience and then latterly jumping forward in time, there’s a genuinely warm yet insightful charm that bathes the whole production. Her writing sparkles with conversational wit – Rose’s inimitable use of the English language is hilarious – but it also negotiates the emotional curveballs that life throws at them with a deft touch. The cast carry off these highs and lows with great skill and there’s a gorgeously organic chemistry between them all, which is unafraid of showing the messier side of things, the frustrations that come from changing priorities, the bitter disappointment that accompanies emotional estrangement from those once so close.
Mackmin’s direction keeps things moving smoothly with a neatly episodic style, punctuated with splashes of period-identifying music – The Cure’s Lovecats, Madonna’s Ray of Light – that rolls inexorably forward as time waits for no (wo)man, life forcing reassessment of just what is most important. And the final coda, with its revisiting of one of the most delightful moments of the play, reminds us exactly what that is: friendship in all its rich complexity, as brilliantly evoked here.