“He’s such an insensitive git. Loves having a go at you lefties.”
What price a laugh? How far should the boundaries of taste be pushed to achieve comic objectives? And how complicit are we in wanting to find things funny? Simon Paisley Day’s play Raving sets out its unreconstructed stall early on from its first dubious gay jokes to the co-opting of the phrase ‘batty boy’ which garnered a disturbing number of titters from the Hampstead Theatre audience. But putting the tastes of the audience to one side, this actor-turned-playwright hits on the nose across the spectrum – post-natal depression and something perilously close to sexual abuse are used as joke-filled hooks on which to hang his farcical machinations and for a play with pretensions of being a contemporary comedy, it just doesn’t fly.
Paisley Day’s premise is the stuff of a many a sitcom. Three middle class London couples rock up at a cottage for a weekend away in deepest Wales but instead of leaving their troubles behind, chaos erupts on a near-hourly basis. Briony and Keith are having their first break away from son Finn, their first three years of parenthood not having proved easy; über-perfect Ross and Rosy live what appears to be a charmed life, only a constant stream of au pairs causing a minor wrinkle; and last minute additions Charles and Serena are the embodiment of blithe hooray-Henryness, in possession of an anarchically raucous teenage niece who further stirs the pot once a drug and alcohol-fuelled rave is discovered in a neighbouring field.
Edward Hall directs his TV-friendly cast with customary skill and their experience means that laugh-out-loud moments do occur – Issy van Randwyck is beautifully observed as the rampant Serena, connecting well with Nicholas Rowe’s randy Charles, Tamzin Outhwaite’s Briony has much funny business with a breast pump and Barnaby Kay as her frustrated husband Keith locates some rare moments of genuine pathos amongst the bedlam. But the characterisation is paper thin – at no point is it genuinely credible that these three couples are friends who would spend time together, the plot follows its clearly predictable faultlines to the end, and the writing allows no depth to emerge in pursuit of its easy laughs.
Which wouldn’t be so much of an issue if it lived up to the farces it aspires to but though there is a repeatedly slamming door, there is little sophistication to the play’s construction. Repetition is used to sledgehammer effect, stereotypes conformed to at every juncture, the moral sense of the play weirdly warped by the choices made. Senses of humour are as unique as fingerprints and I would be remiss not to mention that the press night audience laughed heartily for most of the evening, but the pandering to easy targets and these lazy stereotypes ultimately holds up an uncomfortably sharp mirror to what we apparently consider acceptable comedy.