Ellen Robertson in Mrs Delgado at OFS

Mike Bartlett‘s Christmas offering at OFS has achieved something of a cult status, creating a box office frenzy as soon as the dates are released.

Simple, domestic and surprising in their make-up, nonetheless their message stays with you long after the curtain comes down, and 2021’s Mrs Delgado is no different.

Which is why, after selling out at OFS, it’s now on all week at Oxford Playhouse. Here is our initial review:

Especially pared back, even by Mike Bartlett’s standards, Ellen Robertson‘s narration of the tale while perched on a stool centre stage may appear over simplified, but we soon realise that the spotlight is not on her, but on her story.

Ellen Robertson in Mrs Delgado

And so we are introduced to Mrs Delgado and her nosy and much younger neighbour Helen who are lockdown neighbours in all 2020’s manifestations, for better or worse.

Helen is careful and law-abiding, following government guidelines and reacting to the pandemic with increasing horror while her more elderly, flamboyant and eccentric neighbour Mrs Delago seem to be blatantly flaunting the rules with increasing regularity and enjoyment. What to do?

Ellen Robertson in Mrs Delgado

Interfere as it turns out, and as Helen justifies her actions, we hear the echoes of thousands of voices all over the country, indignant that while they are isolating and staying safe others are endangering themselves and others by ignoring the necessary sanctions.

And it’s this sense of pious injustice that a mischievous Mike Bartlett plays with like a cat and mouse, never judging or condoning but taking great delight in that very British sense of outrage and curtain-twitching, the endless fun that can be had when establishment meets bohemia, whatever the circumstances.

As the plot unfolds, the layers keep being added, addressing so many of the mixed messages and emotions experienced by us all during lockdown. From self-righteousness to downright scared, boredom to loneliness, curiosity to an awakening of our own surroundings and its community, and the fine line between interfering and caring, it’s all thrown into the melee for us to chew over later.

Ellen Robertson in Mrs Delgado

All of which is accentuated by the fact that we are watching this almost dated play (it is over a year ago when we were banging pans on our doorsteps) as the Omicron variant creeps ever closer and once again threatens our civil liberties.

All of which is imparted by the excellent Ellen Robertson from her stool, quite alone, which considering she was brought in relatively recently is as great an accomplishment as the play itself.

We are left with Mike Bartlett’s almost Dickensian message of festive clarity: “In the end it was simple. If someone’s in trouble, you help,” a suitable parting gift to carry forward into the unknown of 2022.

Mrs Delgado runs at Oxford Playhouse until Saturday February 19. Book at https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/mrs-delgado

Katherine MacAlister