Amelia Bullmore’s Di and Viv and Rose has proved itself to be the little play that could since its debut in 2011. First seen in Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs studio space, with Tamzin Outhwaite, Nicola Walker and Claudie Blakley playing the flat-sharing heroines of the title, Anna Mackmin’s production later graduated to Hampstead’s main stage, with Anna Maxwell Martin and Gina McKee replacing Blakley and Walker. And the production is now settling in for a four month West End run at the Vaudeville, with Outhwaite still on board as Di, and Samantha Spiro and Jenna Russell completing the cast.
The reasons for Di and Viv and Rose’s success aren’t hard to gauge, for Bullmore’s play is an affable, easily relatable, instantly accessible work, one which, in its focus on friendship and its years-spanning time frame, sometimes suggests a female rejoinder to Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg, itself currently enjoying a West End transfer following its Donmar revival last year.
Actually, the play that Bullmore’s nods to most directly and self-consciously isn’t Reg, though. Rather, it’s Pam Gems’s 1976 Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi (also a Hampstead success story that went on to a West End transfer, interestingly enough), which was revived at the Finborough by Helen Eastman in 2013 (review here). Like Gems’s, Bullmore’s focus is also on female friendships forged in poky premises, in this case the bond formed by three women who share a flat at university in the 1980s.
Di (business studies) is a sporty lesbian, apparently frank and forthright, but not yet out to her parents. Viv (sociology) is a prim, ambitious student, diligently beavering away at her work on women’s clothes as social signifiers. And Rose (art history) is a posh scatterbrain, generous with her emotional and sexual affections and resolved to bed as many boys as possible. The drama follows the women through university and beyond, as their lives converge and diverge, always with the memory of their time as students as a bond that unites them.
Bullmore's play is at its most beguiling when at its most relaxed, capturing the rites and rhythms of student flat-sharing with affection and nice attention to detail, whether presenting impromptu bops to the Pretenders or cider-supping from wonky bowls. It’s rather less good when cooking up crises for its heroines, though. A sexual assault strand feels awkwardly interpolated from the off, and some of the later Big Dramatic Events can feel a little bogus, too. Though far less pessimistic in its vision than Gems’s play, the drama can’t be accused of presenting a sappy version of sisterhood. But some of the confrontations that erupt between the characters feel tedious and shrilly over-extended, especially in the weaker second half, in which the play – and this production, in particular - also suffers from the loss of one of its principal assets.
Despite some under-designed scenes in the second half which make the production look like it’s still taking place in a rehearsal space (the move to the larger venue may account for this), Mackmin finds most of the writing’s strengths, though, zipping the action along with songs that include “The Love Cats,” “Running Up That Hill” and – slightly bizarrely for the moment it's scoring – Robert Wyatt’s take on “Shipbuilding.” The production also benefits from good-to-great work from its actresses. Spiro doesn’t always seem entirely in her element as Viv, but she has some splendid, caustic moments. The only member of the cast to have been with the show from the start, Outhwaite has kept her performance lively and fresh. And Russell (straight outta Urinetown) is just superb, bringing wonderful warmth and captivating naturalness to her characterisation of perhaps the nicest nympho the stage has ever seen.
None of the actresses convinces as the 18-year-olds they start the play out as, so much so that the line “We’re very mature for our age” suggests an in-joke. But they’re witty and inventive enough to transcend that, just as the play itself transcends most of its flaws through sheer likeability.
Booking until 23 May.