Amelia Bullmore isn’t just a playwright, she’s a stealth bomber. Watching Anna Mackmin’s buoyant, terrific production of “Di and Viv and Rose” you think you’re merely enjoying the surface wit and warmth of an amusing, if familiar, study of friendships when suddenly Bullmore throws in a beautifully timed, unexpected event. The fallout from an unseen act of violence temporarily kills the laughter to reveal a gripping atmosphere in the auditorium. It’s evidence of just how much audiences have unwittingly invested in the ever-more engaging characters.
Spanning 27 years, everything kicks off at university in ancient times, i.e. pre-cellphone 1983, when students lined up to use a payphone, with Bullmore introducing her three characters as they each call home. This cheerily upfront exposition is deftly laced with the quick-fire humor that is the play’s trademark, not least when art-history student Rose (Anna Maxwell Martin) proffers a description of dour sociology student Viv (Gina McKee,) the girl in the flat next door “who dresses like it’s the war,” blithely unaware that Viv is standing right beside her.
Rose’s fear and Viv’s froideur are both soothed by sporty, business-studies student Di (Tamzin Outhwaite) who, released from the expectations of her cake-baking mother back home, is cheerfully out as a lesbian. And when Rose’s stepfather buys her a house, the three of them move in together.
Although the resultant shape of the first act — the ups and downs of living together — is predictable, Bullmore plays her hand with finesse by refusing to write a consistent point-of-view for each character. Their resultant contradictions make them fascinating.
The crispness of the dialogue and Mackmin’s pacing keeps everything moving, so that by the time the crunches come, there’s a sense of the audience rooting for all three characters despite their flaws.
Surprisingly, posh Rose is as fascinatingly innocent about sex as she is promiscuous. Once she becomes pregnant, she narrows the field of possible fathers down to six. And although the character is considerably less than intellectual, Maxwell Martin never patronizes her. Banishing the plaintiveness which is her stock-in-trade, she happily ups Rose’s comic potential to winning effect.
Rose’s determined naivety rubs McKee’s compelling, determined Viv up the wrong way which leads to climactic truth-telling. But it’s a tribute to McKee’s calm playing — ranging from austere self-possession to a thrashing round of air-guitar when all three let rip to Prince after a drunken night out — that Viv remains as enigmatic as she is intriguing.
A no-nonsense Outhwaite fills scenes with quick-thinking optimism that keeps the comedy level high and drives scenes with bracing energy. Even when Di’s fortunes plummet she shows sensitivity through strength.
In the second act, which runs through their post-college lives to the present, death interrupts the flow of their lives. Bullmore’s timing is again expert and the emotional connection between characters and audience is revealed as the women’s alliances come under threat.
Instead of a wearying succession of tidy “breakthrough” moments in which motivations hitherto conveniently hidden are “dramatically” exposed and lifelong tensions resolved, Bullmore allows her characters to be three-dimensional. Their resolution is partial but refreshingly hard-won, so the play never falls into the trap of sentimentality.
Everything is anchored by the detail of Mackmin’s production. Separating out from the safety of a cluttered home to the scarier open spaces of the world beyond, Paul Wills’ set unobtrusively echoes the relationships it delineates.
This is as much a play about personal ambitions as it is about shared values. But although Bullmore’s views on the nature of friendship could be described as being, in the widest sense, political, she and her characters amusingly lecture each other but never the audience.
The light touch shared by all concerned — plus all three actors’ high TV profiles — should send this sailing into the West End. Beyond that, Bullmore’s attractively tight, new-wine-in-old-bottles text looks set to have strong future life.