Review: Di and Viv and Rose, Hampstead Downstairs

“We could really live together, what do you think?”

Continuing their practice of showcasing new writing in the Michael Frayn space downstairs now with a generous donation from the Peter Wolff Trust, the Hampstead Theatre’s newest play is Amelia Bullmore’s Di and Viv and Rose. And though these shows are flying under the radar a little with no official press coverage, there has been no stinting on top quality cast and creatives to deliver an absolutely brilliant evening of effervescent fun, sparky comedy and heart-rending emotion.

Anna Mackmin, she of the delightful Me and My Girl in Sheffield, directs here a trio of top actresses: Nicola Walker (who I once accidentally terrorised in a dry cleaners on the Holloway Road – mistaken identity, breadmakers, it’s a long story…sorry Nicola), Tamzin Outhwaite (who gets huge love for brilliantly telling a grumpy audience member where to go at Matilda) and Claudie Blakley (about whom I have no stories but I still love her anyway). Di and Viv and Rose follows three young women as they arrive at university in 1983 and soon end up sharing a house in which deep friendships are formed over the next three years as they go through the ups and downs of student living. We then revisit the friends 15 years later and again another 12 to see how their lives have turned out and how the friendship has changed over time.

Bullmore’s play works so very well because although she touches on a world of larger issues and themes, her focus remains so very strongly on the central subject, that of friendship; the comfort it can provide, the joy it can bring, how it endures in times of crisis and how it changes over time as life and lovers interfere. And by creating three such individual yet complementary characters, we are instantly drawn into their world of drinking cider out of bowls, late night cramming, nights of reckless abandon at the student union notching up the bedpost and dancing like a loon to Prince on full volume. For me, part of this came from the recognition of the vagaries of shared student living (I, too, fully subscribed to the writings of Madhur Jaffrey) and the genius 80s soundtrack but it is also, crucially, extremely funny with it. So much so that when darker shadows fall, the impact hits like a sledgehammer, taking the breath away.

Claudie Blakley is just sensational as the dippy Rose, her heart as big as her desire to sleep with as many boys as possible, her non-sequiturs are excellently delivered yet we are always laughing with her, never at her, a fabulous performance. Nicola Walker makes a determined Viv, studious and ambitious, forthright in her opinions about others yet not quite able to self-analyse quite so well. And Tamzin Outhwaite as Di, embracing the opportunity to well, embrace her lesbianism is a beautiful mix of sporty self-confidence, affable warmth and a moving tenderness. All three are forced to show strength, both inner and outer, throughout the course of the play and so whilst we laugh, a lot, there’s also moments of devastating emotion which will touch you deeply.

In some ways, I rather regret the Hampstead’s decision to tuck this away downstairs as it such a joy to watch, so extremely well directed by Mackmin who utilises the limited space to great and varied effect, and so very well written, it feels like the kind of play that should be getting more exposure. Di and Viv and Rose works so well because these are such recognisably real people, living through real problems and though at first glance it may seem a women-centric piece (and it would do even more were I to list the issues that are covered, but spoilers…!) but in reality it really isn’t, it is much more universal than that. A definite recommendation to book and move sharpish, as dates are beginning to sell out.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: free cast sheet available
Booking until 15th October

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