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Contractions review at the Studio, Sheffield Theatres – ‘gruelling and gripping’

Sara Stewart and Rose Leslie in Contractions at Sheffield Theatres.Photo: Marc Brenner
Sara Stewart and Rose Leslie in Contractions at Sheffield Theatres. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Like Bull, Mike Bartlett's bruisingly brilliant 2013 play about a struggle for survival in the office place, his earlier play Contractions runs for less than an hour, but it exerts such an uncomfortable, vice-like grip that it feels simultaneously both longer and utterly relentless.

We are once again amid the brutal horrors of the corporate work place, where a steely, unknowable female HR manager probes and parries with a young woman on the sales force as to whether she has breached the company's strict rules against pursuing romantic and sexual relationships with fellow workers.

In the clinical intimacy of the manager's office, represented by a bare desk set on a revolve so that our perspectives of the two characters is constantly shifting, we witness a series of interrogations that are more and more intrusive, even outrageous, in the escalating sense of total control the company insists on having over its employees.

Bartlett creates a series of brittle encounters, the interrogator's questions loaded with a Pinteresque menace. Director Lisa Blair marshals it with a disquieting, completely focused intensity. As the HR manager, as poised as she is chilly, Sara Stewart reminded me of Cate Blanchett – high praise. Rose Leslie, best known for TV's Game of Thrones, brings an edgy, nervous vulnerability to employee Emma.

This regional premiere of a play originally seen at the Royal Court reaffirms Sheffield's daring for challenging theatrical fare. Let's hope incoming artistic director Robert Hastie will continue to encourage that appetite.

Verdict
A gruelling, gripping, brilliantly written two-hander that packs a ferocious punch
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