Last Updated on 27th April 2015
Di and Viv and Rose
26 January 2015
In the first Act, the ebullient Rose purchases three large yellow bowls for almost nothing. She gets back to the house she shares with her student friends, Di and Viv, and proudly unwraps them. It is only then, as she puts them on the counter, that she realises that they are flawed, they can’t sit flat on the surface. They wobble about, empty. But clever Viv affixes Blu-Tack to each base, to stabilise them, and feisty Di fills each with cider. With the help of the three friends, these not-fit-for-purpose, empty vessels are made useful. Later, in Act Two, years after the trio have ceased being flatmates, the silly, rocking bowls become a poignant symbol of that long ago time when the three friends lived together and life was simpler.
In truth, of course, the yellow bowls represent the women. When we first meet each of the three, each is not quite right, not working properly as a functioning human being, and quite, if not wholly, empty. But with the help of the other two women, each becomes stronger, sturdier, fit-for-purpose. They face their flaws, see them set right by their friends and move on, productive and mostly hopeful, living full, if unexpected or chaotic, lives.
Di and Viv and Rose, a play written by a woman (Amelia Bullimore), directed (skilfully and with verve) by a woman (Anna Mackmin), choreographed by a woman (Scarlett Mackmin), and starring three women (Samantha Spiro, Tamsin Outhwaite and Jenna Russell) is now playing at the Vaudeville Theatre. The presence of so many female creatives in one West End production is reason enough for celebration but Di and Viv and Rose is worthy of celebration in a number of ways.
Bullimore sharply observes her characters and like any good playwright dealing with domestic and personal issues, unravels the layers of each of the trio of friends bit by bit, not necessarily in a linear way, exposing the raw centre of each. This is not a play for women but it is a play about women. But more than that, it’s a play about friendship; long, enduring friendship.
It’s funny, silly even in places, chock-full of heart and sewn together with threads of heartbreak, tragedy and the kind of confrontational arguments only real friends can have. Bullimore’s dialogue is peppy and sharp; worlds and classes collide in the war zone that can be higher education as differences are unveiled, debated and accepted. Each of the trio is fresh, sharp-edged and quite real. The sense of the developing friendship over decades is reflected in sparkling detail.
There is unlikely to be a better production of this play; the three stars are perfectly cast and each makes their character soar in a way which transcends the text.
Russell is the key to the trio, the ebullient, man-hungry, life-grabbing, and casually irritating Rose. She perfectly portrays the unrelenting aspects of Rose which underpin her mad-to-cook, nosy, and promiscuous student-seeking-to-escape-her-family. It is impossible not to see her as the Everyman girlfriend, posh, loyal and stupidly frank. Despite her flaws, she is irresistible. Russell radiates joy – it will be a long time before I forget the image of her lying on her back on a couch cooling her over-worked “va” with a pedestal fan.
Outhwaite is in tremendous form as the archetypal sporty lesbian, whose mother sends cakes and comfort packages but does not know her daughter is gay. She is forthright and calming and when her world collapses, the pain is clear, bruising and sensitively conveyed. Her funeral oration in Act Two is especially good, the highlight of the evening. Impossibly sad but not sentimental, Outhwaite cleverly and convincingly demonstrates there what it is to have lost a life-long friend.
Spiro is acidic, spiky, intellectual and reserved; the driven, desperately solitary soul who finds comfort, refuge and succour from her unlikely pals in the houseshare. Her hair and outfits are wonderful (clever work Paul Wicks) and she imbues the most difficult character of the three with insight and understanding. Her final scene with Outhwaite is powerful indeed.
Twice, perhaps three times, the tone of the play turns on a dime, but never does this jar and author and cast take full advantage of each turn. These three, gifted actresses easily handle the meaty themes in Act Two. Act One focusses more on opportunity and possibility – Act Two deals in consequences and decay.
The first Act sets out, deliberately, to be funnier and largely succeeds. The second Act, while clearly darker, is still funny – but it is also confronting. And shattering. There is a lot of disconnected tragedy, especially in Act Two, and some of what happens there seems inconsistent with the various points of view and traits so carefully built up in Act One. But, then, life is inconsistent and unfair and Bullimore’s play and characters reflect this truth.
There is an extraordinary section in Act Two where Spiro laughs uncontrollably for ages. Eventually, she makes Outhwaite laugh too – because the characters are completely established, the breath-consuming, irrepressible, ludicrous laughter is infectious and understandable. In lesser hands, this scene could have failed, been almost torture to endure. But so successfully have the three actresses made us understand these three wildly different, but entwined, lives that it resonates with honesty. Few people would not have been in such a situation; even fewer could pull off what Spiro achieves here.
The set from Paul Wills is at its best in depicting the house the trio shared; the New York and Train station scenes are less successful. And there is a deal of intimacy lost in the transfer from the space at Hampstead Theatre, where an earlier incarnation of this play had a successful life in 2013.
It’s a rare delight to have three actresses working so beautifully together, and their humanity and humour ensures that attention never flags and smiles (gleeful or bleak) are not far away. Casting actresses obviously older than the characters who appear in the first Act seems odd at first, but the decision is correct – and it is interesting to see the effect this has on the play as it progresses. Somehow, the notion of the “then” characters is always present, even in the “now” scenes, and we are constantly reminded that our present selves are a product of our past selves. We are what we will become.
And our true friends will always be with us. No matter what.