The perils of Friday night drinks

An unconvicing take on the office romance.

Tom is quite a bloke. He has never met a girl yet that he couldn't make chuck him by means of passive resistance, "like a romantic Gandhi". We gain privileged insight into this miracle of unreconstructed maleness through his asides, when we are invited to be co-conspirators in his puerile, even murderous imaginings: he tells us confidentially that he understands the mentality of the sex killer, and can "see the appeal of hacking them to pieces and putting them in bin-bags afterwards."

It's fair to say that I didn't exactly warm to the hero of My Romantic History (played by Iain Robertson), though many in the audience at the Birmingham Repetory studio theatre found the disparity between his inner voice and his public one quite hilarious. Fortunately, if belatedly, some 35 minutes into the show, we are then given access to the inner thoughts of the object of his musings, Amy from the office (Alison O'Donnell). Events are replayed from her perspective, and she proves to be every bit as unconvinced and even disgusted by the relationship as Tom. "He smells like bums" is her comment on waking up with him.

Playwright D C Moore sketches a familiar breed with the male commitment-phobe (it's Friends, by way of Peep Show out of High Fidelity), but in comparison, Amy's motivations seem both obscure and contrived. She's apparently dating him ("like fucking Americans") to prove to her co-worker that she can. But there is comedy capital to be made all the same from the unreliability of perspective: Amy recalls things in a rather different way from Tom. Speeches are attributed to different people, and the emphasis of scenes subtly shifts. Her recollection of his chat is along the lines of "blah blah blah, pretty serious about my music back then, blah". And nowhere is Tom and Amy's view more faulty and corrupted than the retrospectives on their first loves, the idealisation of which scuppers their chances of present day romance.

Nominally an office rom-com, My Romantic History doesn't, in truth, explore the office environment except to give the play an appealingly quirky setting, courtesy of designer Chloe Lamford. The office notice board gradually becomes a scrapbook collage of former loves and significant articles, like the Polaroid of a tattoo, or the manga cartoon of boyfriends past. An ancient slide projector is recommissioned to give low-tech, nostalgic presentations on the couple's love affairs, and the filing cabinet does a turn as portal to an outside world - at one point beautifully illustrating Tom's depressing ubiquity, as he appears to teleport in from various locations holding by turns coffee cup, lunch-tray and a clutch of photocopies.

Cardboard boxes are stacked to vertiginous heights; some are suspended from the ceiling, and jettison objects relating to the romantic narratives - a Magic Tree car freshener here, or a phone there. Lamford's ingenious crates suggest not only memory storage, but also a feel of pro tem making- do, and of movement between places. As the play states repeatedly, nothing lasts for ever, and it's as if Tom and Amy's relationship, by rights a throwaway and short-lived affair, has been accidentally given a lamination job and acquired a habit-hardened carapace of permanence, through motives ranging from cowardice to inertia.

Moore's office is a workless and, it must be said, joyless place, with none of the camaraderie, intimacy or shared experience that make the office such fertile ground for colleague-coupling. Amy and Tom's liaison is a purely contingent one, an anthropological likelihood based on sharing the same space. The doubling up of roles only serves to emphasise its arbitrary nature: Robertson and O'Donnell, clad in the cheap suits of junior office staff - all crackling polyester and sensible shoes - jump nimbly in and out of roles as they supply the bit parts in each other's drama. In this they are abetted by a protean Rosalind Sydney, whose main part is awful colleague Sasha, with her moon cups and her Sunday samba drumming.

But where the relationship between the lovers may be bloodless to the point of being perfunctory, under Lindsey Turner's direction the actors generate a real and unexpected warmth with a challengingly small audience. This adds considerable charm to a light-hearted memo on the ways in which we settle for each other, our partial takes on past and present, and the perils of Friday night drinks. Like a day at the office, there are lots of shared jokes, and it is a little too long.

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"Samphire": a poem by Alison Brackenbury

"Yet how it waved, in coast’s late light. . . ."

My grandmother could cook it, for
she grew up by that dangerous shore
where the sea skulked without a wall

where I have seen it, tough as grass,
where silent men with rods trooped past
its salty ranks, without a glance.

Lear’s gatherer hangs perilously.
Why? So much is closed to me.
Did Shakespeare ever hear the sea?

Once, said my father, far inland,
from friend or stall, one clutch was found,
steamed, in my grandmother’s great pan.

Once, a smooth leaflet from a shop
claimed they could “source it”, but they stocked
bunched, peppered cress – Another gap.

Yet how it waved, in coast’s late light,
stalks I will never taste, could make
tenderly dark, my coast’s sly snake,
salt on my tongue, before I wake.

Alison Brackenbury is an award-winning poet. Her ninth collection, Skies, will be published by Carcanet in March

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle