Other Hands is a play about love and repetitive strain injury, but not necessarily in that order. Steve is a bit of a loser, a would-be freelance IT guy who in fact spends most of his time playing video games. His partner Hayley is a successful business consultant. Unsurprisingly, their relationship is strained, and both toy with other options. Laura Wade takes this fairly conventional premise and makes it interesting by introducing repetitive strain injury as an elaborate metaphor for her characters’ feelings of self-estrangement and frustration.
Steve’s video game-induced injury at first merely highlights his general uselessness, but it also makes him emotionally exposed to Lydia, a customer we meet in the opening scene, whose own neediness makes her far more patient with Steve than his wife is, and who eventually becomes an unofficial nurse to both of them. Hayley’s matching handicap seems to develop in sympathy with Steve, but it clearly expresses frustrations of her own, ultimately undermining her relationship with Greg, a manager at the firm she is working with.
The two main characters’ eventual inability to use their hands is full of theatrical potential. In one scene when Hayley is flirting with Greg, he tries to take her hand but she shrinks from him, complaining that it hurts. ‘Imagine I’m holding your hand,’ he says, and the two begin an increasingly racy imaginary encounter. If this is supposed to be erotic, Wade doesn’t quite pull it off (‘I want to put my tongue through the holes between the buttons on your shirt’?), but it is certainly funny, especially as they struggle to agree on the appropriate vocabulary, subtly picking up on an earlier preoccupation with the predations of American English.
But the more physical potential of the characters’ handicap is not explored as fully as it might have been. Steve’s comical efforts to dress himself go some way in this direction, and the littering of the flat with pizza boxes is a nice tangential touch, but for me the metaphor strains against the limits of televisual naturalism. Such a weird idea as characters literally handicapped by their emotional problems calls for a more slapstick approach.
Nonetheless, four strong performances from the cast make the play engaging as well as thought-provoking, allowing the audience to focus on the central drama while storing up thoughts on the many interesting subthemes to do with business, technology and friendship. Following previous plays including Young Emma and Colder Than Here, Laura Wade won last year’s Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright. With Other Hands, she is still promising, but also delivering.
Till 11 March 2006