Playwright Margaret Perry’s latest one-woman show, Collapsible, is a sharp, witty and honest portrayal of a young woman navigating the harsh impersonal systems of the world.
As we walk to our seats, Essie is already on stage, suspended in mid air on a block of concrete. We take off our coats and settle ourselves down while Essie meditates. She looks beneficent and serene. But when her stream of consciousness begins, she gate-crashes the mood. All is not well in Essie’s world. Her girlfriend has just left her; she has a scratchy relationship with her sister and wants to punch her brother-in-law’s lights out. And what’s more, she has just lost her job.
Playwright Margaret Perry won’t thank me for saying this, but very soon we feel we are in Phoebe Waller-Bridge territory. In Collapsible, another beautiful, tall, willowy siren (played by Irish actress, Breffni Holahan) is summoning the angst of a generation. Without Phoebe, would we really be sitting here now?
After a while, it really doesn’t mater. The monologue is sharp and witty, even if it feels at times a little unfinished or like there’s more to come – more that I for one would be happy to hear. Personally, I can never get enough material about the awkwardness of who is going to pay for dinner; which one of us has the better job; the impossible task of trying to fit in with the farce they call the modern working environment. Essie’s struggles feel all too familiar and yet they are not clichéd.
Margaret Perry really takes flight, putting her vulnerable character in woke working hubs with bearded men on beanbags, who say: ‘Essie, we do things differently here and we feel that you might be a really great fit for us’ – only to resort to all the usual Human Resources interrogations when it counts. ‘Tell us, Essie, why did you leave your last job?’
It’s a good question and like all good questions, Essie would rather not answer it. The truth is that Essie was let go, but she takes a while to get to the truth, because it hurts. But, like an onion, the layers of self-preservation are peeling away from Essie, one by one.
Everyone is putting too much pressure on Essie to find a job. Her isolation grows, as does the mess in her flat and the washing up in the sink no doubt. When she is preparing for interviews, she makes lists of attributes to prop up her shaky self-esteem. Bubbly, accomplished, resourceful, adaptable. She asks everyone around her for more words to add to her list. Her mother tells her that she’s personable. It’s the sort of helpful and yet unhelpful thing a mother might say to a struggling child. But whatever list Essie is building, she cannot write her way out of the desperation that is descending.
In a world of branding, buzz words and a billion voices online, the individual may think they are being heard, but their impact is minimal to people who are too distracted to listen. Fitting in is all employers really want. In other words, they’re looking for more people just like themselves. And it’s no place for vulnerable, artistic souls like Essie, who is just that little bit too different to be given a chance.
The performance of Essie by Breffni Holahan is brilliant and intense. When she fixes us with her glittering, sometimes-tearful eyes, we might be sitting in the darkness, but she has a way of making it feel personal, like we might just be the HR manager who has rejected her job application. And it feels rude to look away. Honahan flawlessly flits from being shy to cross to seething to sexual in this clever, light-footed portrayal of Essie.
When it comes to the set, I don’t particularly like the spiked railings that are pointing towards Essie. They look too literal as symbols of a cruel and unjust world offering up stakes on which she could impale herself if she slipped up even just a little bit. But I love the concrete block that she is squatting on and its slow, dusty disintegration.
When she’s asked in one job interview what her main faults are, she answers ‘perfectionism.’ I realise I have used this word myself in job interviews – cliché’s beget more clichés – and human resources only serve to foster a series of falsehoods which have nothing to do with the understanding of who an individual really is.
If I have anything to suggest about this evolving show going forward, I would love it to be more angry and punchy, to fight back against the ultimate impersonal silliness of pigeonholing. Then we might have a chance of understanding that not everyone is the same or can turn in a mechanical response to a trumped up questionnaire.
The title ‘Collapsible‘ refers to a scene where Essie’s brother-in-law asks her how she is feeling, as does everyone else who comes into contact with her.
“I feel like a collapsible chair,” says Essie “when it crushes in on itself.”
We believe him to be a dorky chap, the brother-in-law, because Essie tells us he is, but later, as the story progresses, the awkward fellow shows up at Essie’s flat. He wants to connect with her, to tell her he sometimes feels the same way. And it’s a big moment for Essie, as all connections are, because it reminds us how important it is to share. Her view of her brother-in-law changes and we feel it like a small but significant triumph. Maybe Essie will be OK after all.
Collapsible will be playing at the Bush Theatre from 18 February to 21 March. For more information and to book tickets, click here.
Feature image by Bronwen Sharp.