Brighton Year-Round 2020
So a nymphomaniac, a lesbian and a sociologist walk into a bar …
Sounds like the opening line of a rather hoary old joke, but it’s a situation that takes place in ‘Di and Viv and Rose’ . The three eponymous characters are students, at Manchester University in 1983, and in one scene they’ve come back to their shared house absolutely trashed, bouncing around the room, still dancing to the music they’ve spent all evening listening to.
Rose is studying Art History, and she’s at least a social class or two above the other pair, with her breathless enthusiasm and her cut-glass accent. She’s on the phone to her stepfather, telling him about another student who goes to Asda – “That’s a supermarket …”. But what she’s really excited about at University is – “Boys!” Sex with boys. Lots of them. She tells Di that it’s like being on holiday in France or Spain, places that are full of available males.
“I’ve never been abroad” replies Di. Di’s from somewhere up North, she’s obviously from working-class stock, the kind of people who don’t do ‘abroad’, and she’s gay. She’s studying English, intent on improving her life, and she’s obviously the first one in her family to get to University. It’s the eighties, remember, so unlike back home there’s a flourishing gay scene, and Di has to deal with the social and sexual pecking-order on the canteen’s Lesbian Table.
The third one’s Viv. Viv is Scottish, and she doesn’t seem interested in sex at all – but she’s fascinated by the social and political attitudes of the other students, writes long essays about ‘economic signifiers’. While Di has joined the campus sports teams and lives in a tracksuit, Viv prefers loose-fitting dresses in rather sober colours, a fashion choice that Rose describes as being “from the Second World War”.
Not an obvious grouping then, but maybe that’s a lot of the point of University – that you’re thrown together with very different people, and sometimes it works and you become friends despite (or maybe because of) the differences. Amelia Bullmore’s play follows the lives of the women over almost three decades, and it’s a warm and funny portrait of female friendship, with its ups and downs, its triumphs and its tragedies.
Such a long-term look at people’s lives gives the piece the feel of a family saga – the kind that fills a fat paperback for summer beach reading, or long winter evenings in front of the fire. I hope I’m not giving too much away when I tell you that there are friendships broken and repaired, births and a death, and a range of locations from Manchester to New York. It’s very funny in parts – Ruby Tiger’s staging at The Rialto got a great number of laughs, but there were more than a few tears too (I know – I asked my neighbours afterwards) at some of the things that happened.
Very much a bare-bones production on the black stage: no background scenery, the set little more than a sofa, a few chairs, and the bare minimum of other props. There are a lot of phone calls between the women themselves, and their families, and for these sequences each actor simply stepped into a spotlight at the front of the blacked-out stage.
The acting – Sophie Dearlove as Di, Emmie Spencer as Viv, and Mandy Jane Jackson as Rose, was almost faultless (occasionally a few lines were delivered a bit fast, making it difficult for the audience to keep up). Claire Lewis’ confident direction allowed the actors to use every inch of The Rialto’s fairly small stage, and Dan Walker’s cleverly focused lighting defined the changes of scene as we moved from place to place and year to year. In all really good theatre, the audience lose the sense of artifice, of actors performing in front of them, and here I quickly got the impression that I was watching three real people. More than just watching them – I cared about them.
My main criticism of Di and Viv and Rose is with the writing itself. The three characters are brilliantly defined, and cleverly contrasted as a group – but each one felt rather two-dimensional. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that they are stereotypes – Di is everyone’s idea of a lesbian, Rose a typical Home Counties Sloane, Viv’s a brainy woman driven by a need to achieve success. I wanted to know more about their back-stories – their politics, their beliefs, their home backgrounds. We were given a few hints, but not sufficient to flesh out fully believable human beings.
What this production excelled at, though, was the sense of time passing. We first meet the women as eighteen, ditzy and hedonistic, and by the end they’re middle aged, with life’s experiences and tragedies behind them. It’s a measure of the skill of the actors and the director that what we were seeing never felt false, or artificial. The characters were young, and then later they were old, and part of the magic of great theatre is that we accepted all parts of it as being … true.