Review: Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn – Hampstead theatre

Shannon Tarbet (Avery), Polly Adams (Alice) and Emilia Fox (Catherine). Photo Alastair Muir

Shannon Tarbet (Avery), Polly Adams (Alice) and Emilia Fox (Catherine). Photo Alastair Muir

Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw was a popular and a critical success at the Almeida in 2011, so a new play by her, a play about women, their choices, their desires, their stumblings and recalibrations, felt like an exciting prospect. Therefore, it saddens me to say “Rapture, Blister, Burn”, directed by Peter DuBois in the main stage of the Hampstead theatre, is overall a disappointment.

Much of the problem is with the dramatic structure of the play, or lack of it. Two thirds are spent setting the scene, with hardly any plot development. A couple, in early middle age with two children, is visited by the husband’s ex-girlfriend, now a high-flying academic. Her mother is recovering from a heart attack, their babysitter has her own problems and life philosophy. The next ninety minutes are spent not so much detailing a rich and compelling backstory but substituting character development for feminist theory. The academic discussions, interesting in themselves, feel clumsy compared to the vital realities of lived lives.

The script’s awkwardness affects the performances in various degrees: Emma Fielding as Gwen gives a slightly hysterical performance, justified partially by the character’s insecurities. (And why do beautiful stay-at-home women need to wear frumpy clothes?). Emilia Fox as Catherine feels too opaque to be engaging, or even convincing as a successful academic. Adam James does his usual fine job in an underwritten role and his relaxed demeanour brings much-needed naturalism in the first half of the play. Shannon Tarbet as Avery is wonderfully deadpan and winning, aided by the no nonsense attitude of the character.

Eventually, plot elements kick in and the characters’ discoveries inject drive into the story. It’s not enough to make for a compelling evening but it does open the door to opportunities lost. Which brings us to the overall impression of the play: a rich subject, a few brilliant lines and insights hampered by dramatic false starts. Shorter sharper please.

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