It was only a matter of time before someone wrote a comedy about the awkward indignation we all have around others’ adherence to the lockdown rules, and it’s here in Mike Bartlett’s new hour-long play, Mrs Delgado. The eponymous older woman is the one ignoring social distancing guidelines and inviting people into her house, which can be witnessed by her overstepping neighbour, Helen (whom, we’re led to believe, is played by Ellen Robertson as an interactive narrator). As Helen looks into the life of the rebellious resident, we find out what goes on behind closed doors in as much a literal sense as a metaphorical one.
Even when Robertson was cast for the role at the last minute (with the initial lead Rakhee Sharma pulling out due to “unforeseen circumstances”), thus causing her to be on book for the performance, she easily slips into the stuck-up entitlement and snootiness possessed by Helen. Part of what makes Mrs Delgado so entertaining lies in the actress’ playfulness with the protagonist’s quirky indecisiveness and conflicted personality. She considers herself too upstanding a citizen to not confront Mrs Delgado, yet plagued by embarrassment to be too forceful in her criticism. As Helen says herself: she sometimes crosses the line, while her neighbour doesn’t know there was one.
This moral dilemma is as amusing as it is thought-provoking. How much, for instance, is concern over others’ following public health guidance simply the pursuit of our own self-interests? The answer to this, in Helen’s case, is poignant and poetic. As much as she is scared that a failure to stick to restrictions would render her and those close to her vulnerable, there is a tragic fragility to Helen around another kind of vulnerability – that letting one’s guard down for the purposes of connection would leave her exposed. It’s the juxtaposition of seeking community in a time of isolation, laid painfully bare by Bartlett. The anti-capitalist rant about ‘swipes replacing seduction’ and being trained to be separate – while delivered with brutal brilliance from Robertson – is the exact thing which Helen is suffering from, the revelation of which is genuinely moving.
Mrs Delgado experiments with the most intriguing binaries: to be together or alone, to be passive or proactive, to be reserved or open. There was, at one point, a question in my mind as to why the play couldn’t be more in terms of staging, but there’s a reason for its third person narrative. Alongside it adding to Helen’s self-importance, the script’s conclusion illustrates a much wider point around what goes on underneath the surface, and against the glow of the fairy lights behind Robertson, we are enlightened as to how small a window into someone else’s life can be.
Mrs Delgado is now running at the Old Fire Station, Oxford until 21 December. It will then be performed at Theatre Royal Bath from 19 to 22 January 2022.
The play will be live-streamed on 14 December, with a recording (with closed captions and an audio-described introduction) made available after 11 December.
Production Images: Alex Harvey-Brown.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Mrs Delgado’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated are honest and my own.