Review: Rapture, Blister, Burn, Hampstead Theatre

“You either have a career and wind up lonely and sad, or you have a family and wind up lonely and sad?”

US writer Gina Gionfriddo’s play Becky Shaw was a bracingly funny hit at the Almeida back in 2011 and her latest hit to land on these shows is Rapture, Blister, Burn encouraging its own new debates about modern feminism at the Hampstead Theatre. Taking an intellectual look at competing feminist theories, the politics of pornography and examining just what we mean when we say “women can have it all”, she has created another intelligent comedy which given the audible reaction of one audience member at a key moment, seems set to provoke opinions here.

Catherine is a forthright feminist academic who returns to the small New England college town of her past after her mother suffers a heart attack to teach a summer school. There, she encounters her former room-mate Gwen and they soon set about revisiting old memories. For neither is truly happy – Catherine’s career success has come at the expense of a husband and family, whilst Gwen is dissatisfied with the lack of stimulation that being a wife and mum-of-two has brought, supplanting her own aspirations which are renewed as she attends Catherine’s classes.

Matters are further complicated by Gwen’s husband being Catherine’s ex and Don too has suffered his own frustrations after settling for a life of mediocrity, so when the skin-tight trousers and stiletto-wearing blast from the past arrives on the scene, the proposition of swapping their lives around to satisfy everyone’s urges becomes a tangible reality. The setting up of this scenario, and the differing feminist viewpoints they each possess, does become a little wordy but it is well worth it, for the turning of theory into practice is both engaging and illuminating.

Returning to the stage after a 10 year absence, Emilia Fox is brilliantly sensuous and sensitive as someone just craving the intimacy of love, and Emma Fielding’s bitter unhappiness as recovering alcoholic and therapy junkie Gwen is vividly portrayed. Peter Dubois’ astute direction ensures that our sympathies never settle for long on one side or the other, reflecting the suppleness of the writing, thoroughly interrogating whether we really want the things we say we do or whether its better just to accept things for what they are.

And careful to avoid making even her supporting characters just mouthpieces, Gionfriddo pleasingly makes all the generations conflicted in their words and deeds. So Shannon Tarbet’s frequently scene-stealing Avery, who attends Catherine’s class, abandons her feminist solidarity when she suspects that her relationship might be at risk. And Polly Adams’ patrician Alice, as conservative and conventional as they come, has no hesitation in urging her daughter to go after the married man that has loomed so large in her life, Adam James’ handsome slacker Don.

Jonathan Fensom’s swift-moving, rotating design is most cleverly conceived, engaging a nifty screen-wipe device to maintain the almost-televisual pace of the scenes. But underpinning it all is the winning combination of keen intelligence and warm humanity that suffuses the writing. Recommended.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 22nd February

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