The One, currently having a revival at the Soho Theatre, is a play of our time. First performed four years ago the #metoo movement has given it a new topicality as some of its themes – including an exploration of consent – have now caught up with it. The script remains largely intact although Uber replaces the previous mini cab as the transport option of choice. Luckily, the packet of Wotsits remains as a distinctly uncheesy prop in the opening scene.
Jo and Harry, the leading characters, are in a toxic relationship. Over the course of 65 minutes we follow an evening in their flat as matters come to a head. Or perhaps they don’t. It isn’t clear why they should stay together: not only do they both goad each other towards splitting up, a previous and still-possible love rival provides a potential but untaken escape route. The violence is emotional, verbal and shockingly physical as Harry and Jo descend into the darkest depths of their humanity. We hear their thoughts, unfiltered by social convention: there is reflection but it is never sober. After Harry makes a big possibly romantic gesture, Jo throws it back saying:
If that was for me, you needn’t have bothered. I’m pissed and I won’t remember it in the morning.
That may be true. Anything may be true in this play, and that’s the point. All three characters walk the line between being candid and being apparently honest – though they are not honest to themselves let alone each other. Equally, we know that they are not good at interpretation. That extends to third wheel Kerry, too. She has Jo on a pedestal for an act she thinks was kind but was just as likely to be borne from irritation.
We’ve already mentioned consent as one theme, and another is desire. Despite Jo and Harry bringing out the worst in each other, there is part of them that needs the other. Jo is poisonous but quick with a quip. Harry is both sceptical about their future together (he wants to have a ‘thinking week’ about it) and passionate about it, when he isn’t at her throat. He is paranoid that she will leave and tries to interpret her contradictory demands, which isn’t an excuse for reading her emails, a betrayal she seems ambivalent about. She’s ambivalent about quite a lot, including the ‘thousand and one tiny little things’ that oil their relationship. She is bored and wants something different, anything different.
Bridging consent and desire is the ambiguity that runs throughout the play. On reading the script (the programme contains it), it looks hard to give these characters humanity yet John Hopkins, Tuppence Middleton and Julia Sandiford do just that. There are times when we do side with one or the other as well as with neither, but this is a play that provides its light relief with excellent verbal or physical jokes, not with the potential for romantic fulfilment. Contrasting the words on the page with the words put to life is perhaps a slightly facile thing but it reminds us that just the words don’t make a person. The chemistry between Middleton and Hopkins raises the relationship between Jo and Harry to something that is worth exploring, though not worth keeping. Whether it is in the end kept is the final ambiguity. Harry and Jo play tricks on each other and it feels as though writer Vicky Jones plays tricks with we the audience, too.
This is a dark hour, with plentiful but dark humour. It is difficult viewing – involving as it did a coach who worked on both the fights and intimate scenes – but ambitious, serious theatre. Electric performances with a quirky and creative set make this a must watch.
The One continues at the Soho Theatre until 25 August. Check ticket availability here.