Whether you are living through them or critiquing a show about them, relationships are tricky to navigate. The material is so intensely personal, so tailored to the individual storyteller, that it almost eschews comments from a detached third party — almost. Over the course of an hour, standup comedian and singer-songwriter Rosie Wilby alternates between reading emails from early 2011, capturing the moment a major three-year relationship came to a sudden halt, and reciting monologues that lay out the full context around it.

In a similar vein to Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance and Master of None, Wilby pitches her one-woman part-memoir, part-standup show as an examination of how technology has drastically changed the etiquette and habits surrounding breakups. The only problem is, as heartfelt and compelling as Wilby’s monologues are, the show never feels as zeitgeist-y as it perhaps sets out to be. A series of sincere and articulate emails over the span of a month is altogether different from, say, receiving a handful of abrupt texts or being ghosted on a dating app. It’s rather telling that the show’s former name (and the name listed in the brochure), “The Breakup Monologues”, became a nod to Chris Martin and Gwenyth Paltrow’s unnerving synonym for their 2014 separation. Wilby’s desire to make her show seem relevant and up to date is understandable but arguably unnecessary — regardless of whatever technological discourse surrounds it, the subject of heartbreak is certainly timeless and can stand on its own two feet.

The same can be said for her “the Ghost of Romantic Future”, a bedsheet-caped warrior “from the year 2071 — see what I did there?”, who has come to rally the troops to “fall back in love with falling out of love and do it properly”. This device, left over from when Wilby first performed the show at the Southbank Festival of Love 2016[1], does however raise an interesting if disquieting point: whether we like it or not, our ex-partners will always make up some part of who we are. Therefore, rather than digitally and mentally erase them from our lives forever (a dual curse and luxury bestowed on the millennial generation) maybe it is healthier to stay friends with them, or at least maintain some other kind of platonic connection with more meaning than a Facebook friendship.

Elsewhere, over a torch (and, for some reason, the X-files theme song) the “Ghost of Romantic Past” warns of the dangers of nostalgia and selective memory, as epitomized in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). A partner’s absence leaves a space onto which the other person can impose a fantastical illusion of their partner comprised purely of their best qualities and happiest moments, leaving the fights and flaws to wither away. Similarly, the “Ghost of Romantic Present” reminds us that reality will eventually intrude on and start to erode “that narcissistic fairy lit circus that is the honeymoon period”, with questions of who will clean the loo and take out the bins. On reflection, rather than one detached third party within the audience, Wilby has already conjured up three of them in-house. Just as Dickens’s Scrooge cannot see past his own miserly greed until his intervention from the triad of Christmas ghosts, it takes the sagacity of Wilby’s romantic ghosts for her to look past her own tragic faith in someone who cannot and will not brave moving forward in their relationship.

The particular bleakness of an e-breakup does ring true at points in the show. Reading such an email on a home computer is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the sender’s physical absence affords the recipient some privacy to react in whatever way they instinctively feel compelled to without self-consciousness. On the other hand, as Wilby candidly puts it, “you’ve had time to prepare; I haven’t.” She goes on to mention that after the initial devastation of her ex-partner’s words subsided, she made herself feel marginally better about it by “correcting her spelling and changing the font from Times New Roman to Arial”.

Wilby’s best moments come when she relaxes into her pre-prepared written monologues, with descriptions that are dexterous without being decadent, and musings that are sentimental without being schmaltzy. As the hour progresses, the monologues become increasingly absorbing. A repeat guest on Radio 4, Wilby has a knack for warm, soothing storytelling — never fazed by the close proximity to her audience in the closed, intimate quarters of The Loft, she takes care and time with her delivery, establishing a mellow, pensive atmosphere that renders the moment she eventually realises the relationship is doomed all the more touching. Part of me wants to wish Wilby better luck in her future relationships, but the other part also wants to wish her an abundance of new material for future shows.

The Conscious Uncoupling is showing at The Counting House, as part of the Free Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe, until the 27th of August.


[1] Maryam Philpott. “Rosie Wilby – The Conscious Uncoupling, London”. 16th June 2016. http://www.thereviewshub.com/rosie-wilby-the-conscious-uncoupling-london/