The premise is simple. There’s one million pounds and two strangers in a room. They get to keep the money to spend however they like – but there’s one string attached. They both need to agree on how to split it and they have a whole hour to decide. For most of us, it’s an easy decision – split it down the middle, right? But what happens when the other person doesn’t agree? Ultimatum explores this dynamic in a rapid-fire discourse full of twists and turns.
A rapid-fire discourse full of twists and turns
Natalie Durkin is a brightly dressed, outwardly cheery teacher. Working all hours of the day for a wage that will never stretch to fulfil her dreams, she can’t wait to spend her £500,000. But she’s soon confronted by the other participant, played by Abbie Murphy, all lean, mean, and dressed in expensive looking athleisure wear. Murphy offers her only £100,000. And then cuts that offer in half when Durkin protests.
Director Charlotte Peters has done an excellent job of making sure the actors use the small stage space wisely; as their power dynamics switch, so do their positions. Getting Murphy to begin her surprise cut-throat negotiation whilst performing yoga poses is a very funny touch and choosing to include the clock on stage builds extra tension as you watch it tick down. Both actors give it their all, delivering on a whirlwind of emotions and personalities as their stories develop and change. Their performances help Ultimatum feel grounded and allow the play room to pose many different philosophical arguments in amongst the drama. Who really deserves free money – if anyone? Whose dreams are more important? Whose life has more value? Is keeping your pride worth turning down a life-changing sum of money? Do the ends ever justify the means?
Jon Gracey’s writing is sharp and intelligent. By spending just an hour with these characters you feel as though you really know them, even when you don’t. However, you do immediately side with Durkin’s character and, although Murphy’s character makes some strong arguments, you never really buy into her side of the story on the same level. No matter her justifications and protestations, her actions are too much like a “greedy prick” (in their words) to fully sympathise with her. This also means that elements of the play can become a little repetitive as the characters circle back to their central disagreement.
Still, you can’t help but become absorbed by the premise: what would you do? Would you split it evenly, try to manipulate for more, or not be bothered at all? There’s a third character too: the mysterious voice who has set this all up. We never find out why, but we know they’re watching. Is this cruel experiment run simply for entertainment? Well, who can judge since we’re also voyeurs peeping in… and is it really any crueller than an episode of Goldenballs or Million Pound Drop?
As it feels our society is becoming ever more entrenched into divided groups, Ultimatum presents us with potential avenues for compromise. With huge issues, such as tackling climate change, up for international debate, the real question Ultimatum leaves us to dwell is: can we learn to make a fair deal, or will we lose it all trying?