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Brighton Year-Round 2021

Di and Viv and Rose

New Venture Theatre, Brighton

Genre: Comedic, Drama, Feminist Theatre, Fringe Theatre, Historical, LGBT, Theatre

Venue: New Venture Theatre Studio


Low Down

Directed by Claire Lewis, with Set Design by Simon Glazier and George Walter, Lighting and Sound Design Dan Walker, Light Operation Alex Epps, Sound Operation and Projections Apollo Videaux, Production Manager Pat Boxall, Stage Manager Janet White, ASM Carol Croft. Movement Graham Brown, Hair Richi Blennerhassett, Rehearsal Photography James Maltby, Original Poster Becky Alford, Programme Tamsin Mastoris Publicity Aldo Oliver Henriquez, James Michael. Till October 9th


Staring at a woman’s calves on the tube one day in 2009, screenwriter/actor Amelia Bullimore kept thinking of her friend, and got in touch.

That’s the spark that brought her 2013 play Di and Viv and Rose to Hampstead, the West End, and (as director Claire Lewis reminds us) Bullimore’s refusal to use her screenwriting gifts on it. ‘It’s a play it’s a play it’s a play.’

Indeed it is: a character-and-dialogue-driven span of 27 years, as three diverse young women meeting as freshers at Manchester University in 1983, and form a – superficially – unlikely bond. Di and Viv and Rose covers their university years in the first half, then jump-cuts twice, pausing at 1998 and 2010.

It’s a drama impossible not to love, whilst at the same time curiously null on the period it takes us through. Lewis – who with her cast first performed this at the Rialto in March 2020 – now has a solution to that. There’s innovations as the team return to reprise their production at NVT.

Bullimore is consummate at disguising the neatly tripartite head heart and body of her three characters. They’re fully-rounded, glinting with surprise and refusals to cliché. We start seeing the others through life-enthused Rose, county village gal on an art history degree and a joyfully welcoming hug to the world, to friendship and as many men as she likes the look of.

Rose is devastatingly innocent. Funny, recklessly generous, forgetful of vital chores (a great laundry moment with hilarious relationship consequences for Di), you know in their way both her friends despite themselves will fall for her.

Mandy Jane Jackson expresses Rose’s hedonism in trip-over speech patterns; it’s a virtuoso performance with shuddering places to go to. Rose is almost heedless living through sensation, experiencing art as physical: ‘Oh I adore Chagall’ she recalls without reflecting on its signifiers. But Jackson makes us feel we’re seeing Rose as literally tinting everything else like a Chagall window. Rose’s energy and inclusiveness is in direct contrast to the others. And Jackson in a brief bleak expression shows she never loses sight of the core of pain that drives Rose from her depressed mother and stepfather rich enough to buy the girls a house on Mossside.

Sophie Dearlove’s laconic northerner Di combines Business Studies with sports. She’s the one most emotionally attuned, more than her straight friends, who picks up someone’s gesture and never forgets, sometimes hardly forgives. The only contemporary references to women’s groups (no spoilers here) emerge through her storyline; we get a glimpse of values fighting their way to be heard. And through a crisis it’s Di who’s first to meet the love of her life.

Dearlove lightens the palette from dour to guarded warmth to contained passion. Later there’s steely fury and grief. Returning home from uni much later she’s gifted with the immortal line: ‘I’ve gone back to fish on Fridays and not being a lesbian.’ Di, like Rose later, goes through a life-changing moment, one you’d not guess at.

Dearlove too embodies with pulsing dignity a speech meant for one occasion turned into another. And Dearlove delivers judgements, hammering out perceptions clever Viv should have seen (as she does early on, filleting Rose’s assumptions). Di’s full moral weight comes out in Dearlove’s performance.

Bullimore’s fierce intelligence plays with Viv as a buttoned-up Scottish academic in the making. The one never deflected from her career path. Nominally it’s Sociology though her subject’s more focused. Viv starts with callow cleverness:  ‘Did the corset restrict women’s lives? Of course it did’ but she moves to forensic analysis. Related feminine garments render it more a deconstructive art history subject. And corsets get a plot-point request later in a way you’d not predict. Its Di who summarises Viv’s achievement later. ‘Read one of your books. Best thing on gloves I’ve ever read.’

Emmie Spencer catches perfectly buttoned-up Viv, knowing she has one chance to escape her bright mother’s fate, indeed leave family for good. What Spencer brings is a quiet danger. There’s Viv’s hauteur, a quiet performative delight in herself as she approaches her favourite lecturer in the U.S; and subsequent New York basking in her sudden out-of-character ‘honey’ – pilloried by her visiting friends.

You suspect that’s not all. This is the Spencer after all who brought an outstanding Hester Collyer to NVT’s The Deep Blue Sea. When Spencer’s Viv suddenly explodes in drunken grief shattering a bottle against the wall it’s an overwhelming moment to turn the play on.

Bullimore’s expert at keeping the picaresque energy of the play from merely turning to Turgenev duetting, varying the texture. There’s plenty of three-play. And there’s one epiphanic moment (too long, but who cares?) dancing (I think) to Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’.

Set design by Simon Glazier and George Walter is richly appointed for the first half, since it’s the one room. Use is made of the hatch as a kitchen, sofa, shelves, chairs, bookshelf stage right and on occasion a bed centrally placed in the Studio space. The second half’s more bare, more mobile, twice video-enriched with one scene in a New York apartment. Lighting and sound designer Dan Walker creates disco feels for that interlude and other glitzy moments, with pared lighting for intimate occasions including a makeshift church.

Two crises face the trio at uni, both wholly believable if in one case shocking, the other inevitable. The next strikes after the interval when we shoot first to 1998. Then the outfall in 2010, each with the help of video projections of history and adjacent period pop songs. Lewis supplies the history Bullimore eschews and though it would be an even better play since at least two character would have briefly alluded to such things, Lewis’ decision anchors it for us.

The final crisis might seem placed, a ‘shit happens’ moment as characters deal with the outfall. Again though Bullimore knows exactly how this impacts on each and builds her final crisis superbly from that. Wherever the slight join marks, Bullimore’s characters are vivid – especially careering Rose – and her witty, occasionally super-erudite dialogue enjoys a range from daffy teen through grief to hardened forty-something intellectual.

Lewis and her team clearly revel in a second crack at Bullimore’s creation. They bring a first-rate revival of this heartwarming play, surprising you with grief, and joy.