A rather unusual new play from Nancy Harris focuses on two First Ladies, the power behind a pair of warmongering presidents.

Zoe Wanamaker in Two Ladies
Zoe Wanamaker in Two Ladies

A dark and delicious black comedy, Two Ladies may have unlikely plotlines and ridiculous coincidences which pile on top of each other with great predictability, but the script is well-paced and gives excellent scope to both Zoe Wanamaker and Zrinka Cvitesic as the wives of the presidents of France and the USA, respectively.

Life has a habit of paying back: Cvitsec’s Sophia has a serious tale to tell about the behaviour of men in times of conflict, and understands that as a former model “from the wrong part of Europe”, she is simply a trophy for her older husband, who never speaks to her when they are alone.

Displaying nerves of steel from the first time we see her, white dress splashed with blood through to the resolution to “wait” at the end, Sophia is an enigma who starts out to needle Wanamaker’s Helen but ends the play as an ally. Theirs is the sweet revenge of women scorned and discarded.

Helen herself is much older than her husband, who as a teenage boy had tempted her from a dull marriage and “a teenage daughter not much younger than he was”. She’s guided and built her husband up in love and faith, and he looks about to betray her professionally and personally.

She is full of ennui with the mechanics of the committee, and clearly looks down on the woman she sees as an uneducated social climber, unfit for her position. Neither woman refers to the other by name at any point.

Zrinka Cvitsec and Zoe Wanamaker in Two Ladies
Zrinka Cvitsec and Zoe Wanamaker in Two Ladies

Anna Fleischle’s design is an offset box, a locked-down anteroom with a window to watch the world outside through, and frosted windows within the building to hide the business of state from those “elected by their husbands”, the “most photographed women in the world”.

It may be tempting to draw parallels with the wives of Macron and Trump, but these seem simple jumping-off points for a more complex portrait of power within power. I would have welcomed some clarity about Sophia’s husband, though – I left thinking he was president of Russia or similar, not the leader of the free world.

There are three supporting characters of note – the French president’s aide, George, the brash American reporter, the willing accomplice with her bucket of water, soap and brushes. They are all needed, but this is very much the Two Ladies show, and both shine under director Nick Hytner’s expert guidance.

Two Ladies continues at the Bridge until tomorrow.

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