Much of the pleasure of going to the theatre is in the variety, and after gorging myself with Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ibsen in recent weeks, the idea of a sharp contemporary comedy was very appealing. These were my thoughts on my way to the Hampstead theatre on Monday evening but unfortunately Raving, written by Simon Paisley Day and directed by Edward Hall, is not that play. The story of three couples spending a weekend in a remote Welsh cottage could have been material for sharp observations, instead it becomes the ground of an aimless exercise echoing bad sitcoms.
Initial signs were not good. An early joke is about parenthood, how anyone can have children while driving a car requires a licence. I have cringed at that joke even in parties where everyone was too drunk for semi-coherent thought, let alone sharp one-liners. But I was prepared to overlook early problems, hoping the play would hit its stride. Sadly this didn’t happen.
The biggest problem is the characters, each a cardboard version of a certain type: the lower middle class couple (neurotic, overworked, uncertain) hanging at the coat tails of the upper middle class couple (controlling, self deceiving, all facade and little substance) that cosies up to the uber-rich. Why do they hang with each other? Why do we hang with them? The additions of a teenager (more over the top than Vicky Pollard with none of the astute characterisation) and a religious Welshman don’t help. Farcical entrances and exits lack elegance, set comedy pieces sit completely outside the characters, and extreme situations become humdrum in their attempt to impress. Nothing important is at stake: a character early on is frustrated by the lack of connection, but quickly his quest becomes for sex and some funny business with breast milk (don’t ask). Another couple is falling apart during the story, with hardly any emotional or long term implications.
More worryingly, questionable choices throw the moral centre of the play off-kilter: a man fondles a sleeping teenager and in the context of the story, that makes him no more than a liar and a philanderer. A woman with persistent post natal depression snaps out of it with some great sex and a good talking to.
The actors do as much as they can, but it’s hard to see what they can achieve in that universe: Issy Van Randwyck and Nicholas Rowe manage genuine laughs with characters who are so confident as to be ridiculous but also curiously engaging. Tamzin Outhwaite finds moments of clarity and Barnaby Kay shows flashes of an appealing man trapped in a frustrating situation. Sarah Hadland’s Rosy is so controlling and Robert Webb’s Ross such a lying cheat that all other aspects of their characters are scorched. Bel Powley comes in firing on all cylinders but she has played teenagers with far more depth and subtlety in plays like Tusk Tusk and Jumpy.
Earlier that day, I was present in a workshop with Alexi Kaye Campbell, courage and ambition in playwriting were talked about. I hope I am not unfair to Raving when I say it lacked both.
Update 24/10/2013: For a second opinion – and a more positive response, you can read revstan’s review.