The world is bursting with pop songs, poems and dramas about love – but what of friendship? There are many buddy movies, of course, but even so, the intimacy and influence of friendship generally plays second fiddle to the passion and pain of eros. It is this tie, though, that Amelia Bullmore’s touching, funny new play chooses to examine. The first drama to move from Hampstead’s experimental downstairs space to the main stage, it’s a wise and bittersweet piece, beautifully delivered by Gina McKee, Anna Maxwell Martin and Tamzin Outhwaite.
To some extent, it slots into the girls/lads-in-a-flat sitcom model. Di, Viv and Rose meet at university in the early 1980s and move into a shared house, where there is plenty of incidental humour about conflicting lifestyles and naïve mistakes. The contrasts between the three girls feel rather self-consciously rigged – Viv, the serious, academic girl who dresses “like it’s the war”; Di, the sensible, sporty lesbian doing business studies; Rose, the sweet, middle-class bohemian affecting to read art history but actually making a much more serious study of boys.
Several of the plot twists feel awkward and it could do with fewer episodes to allow more time and depth to some. But the texture and detail of the play feels so real, the dialogue is so salty and authentic, and the bond between the three so frankly, warmly explored that it’s easy to overlook the sharp corners and improbabilities.
And bubbling under the comedy – and the arguments – are bigger questions about the choices for young women in the 1980s and their impact in later life. Viv, played with lovely, blunt earnestness by McKee, is keenly aware of her luck in having an educational opportunity not open to her mother, and writes a dissertation on the role of the corset in female repression. Di (Outhwaite, abrasive, funny, but also vulnerable) can express her sexuality at university, but not back home. Rose (played with irresistible energy and openness by Maxwell Martin) embraces sexual freedom with a relish that soon worries her friends. But when disaster strikes, the girls’ poignant coping strategy develops a bond that the accidents and arguments of the next few decades may test, but won’t break.
Anna Mackmin’s production, peppered with 80s songs, is sprightly and funny, but can switch mood in an instant. And it is perhaps a bout of shared uncontrollable laughter at a catastrophic mistake that best expresses the deep understanding between old friends.