Published on Public Reviews 7th May 2015.
There’s something deeply infuriating about Christopher Hampton’s Treats, the second of four plays in Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s Directors’ Cuts season. The first impression is that it is the deeply questionable sexual and power politics that has riled, a play that shows a woman actively choosing to go back to her abusive, manipulative partner is bound to stir up bile in the mouth. As one ponders further though, it is clear that it is not this alone that has caused the frustration, after all there are many great plays that have tackled distasteful subjects, from Shakespeare to Kane, and still left you exhilarated by their sheer artistry. Hampton’s play misses this, it’s mathematically precise but it lacks the intangible sheen that all good plays have.
Partly this may be down to implausibility. He was inspired to write the play having seen the reaction of audiences to his translation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. So almost a century after Nora asserted her independence by walking out a free woman, we now see another woman Ann, who indecisively stays put. Having kicked out her abusive partner Dave and shacked up with the most boring man in the office Patrick, Hampton lays out over the nine scenes Dave’s gradual insertion back into Ann’s life. Using the writer’s 2007 update from the 1975 original makes the whole thing seem even more implausible. Does a woman today only have a choice between being slapped about or being in a passionless relationship with a wet fish? One doesn’t doubt that some people find themselves in this situation, but Hampton doesn’t even begin to question let alone answer why this may be. The need not to be alone? A good fuck? We never even get a hint and Josey O’Neal’s production doesn’t find a way to answer the questions either.
Her production starts tentatively but gains in confidence as it develops. On Lizzy Leech’s white, antiseptic flat, laid out with anachronistic 70s’ flourishes, Ewan Black, Timothy Innes and Tilly Steele fight, argue and pout over ninety minutes with no signs of warmth. Interestingly, it’s only in the relationship between the two men that a little bit of understanding is found as Innes’ cocksure journalistic git finds a little bit of support from Black’s “incurable optimist – that’s the misery of it” office drone. Steele wears the dead eyes of a woman who has seen the future and died a death inside.
The performances are fine but struggle to go beyond surface; on first viewing it appears O’Neal is more comfortable with the visual over pace and rhythm. It feels a little glacial over its ninety minutes, the pace meanders rather than flies, cues are not picked up quickly and some scenes drag out to stretching point. She does create some striking visuals, Steele in her bra and knickers standing stock still; so tiny, so lost, in a game she can’t win, and the three characters at the end, all staring forlornly, all beaten, all with no sign of hope. It’s a bleak final image for a bleak nasty play.
In her programme notes O’Neal says that she originally threw the script across the room in frustration at how the play ends. Maybe it should have stayed there.