Rapture, Blister, Burn – Hampstead Theatre

by Alastair Muir

Gina Giofriddo’s latest play, a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, arrives in London after a successful Off-Broadway run and certainly provides food for thought for its audience, particularly if you are a woman.

The play focuses on the choices available to women today – career or family? marry or remain single? – and whether any of these possible choices will make you feel fulfilled or whether the grass is always greener. Such questions are debated though the tri-generational female characters within the story. Catherine, a successful writer and academic on the subject of politics, the rise of feminism and its links with pornography, her mother for whom she has returned home to care for after a heart attack, her old college roommate Gwen and the young free-spirited Avery, Gwen’s former babysitter.

Catherine is 42 and unmarried but with a very successful career, Gwen is a stay at home wife and mother, who also happens to be married to Catherine’s college love Don, now a junior dean at the local college, who numbs his mediocre life with alcohol, pot and porn and who helps Catherine start a summer school course in advance of her full time post beginning in the autumn.

It is through her classes, held in her mother’s sitting room (to which only two students turn up – Gwen and Avery) that the history of feminism, the role of women and their relationships with men are debated, in what to some degree feels like a lecture on the notable authorities on the subject such as conservative Phyllis Schlafly and feminist Betty Friedan. Admittedly this may feel too much like a history lesson for some, but personally I found these scenes in the play incredibly absorbing and thought provoking. Women do indeed have more options today but it is Avery who questions whether women are faced with an unsatisfied life whatever they choose. It is this question that becomes the focus of the story when the possibility of Catherine and Gwen swapping lifestyles is raised and which drives the emotional heart of the play through the second Act.  

The performances of all five actors are excellent. Emilia Fox, in her first stage role for a decade, successfully conveys both Catherine’s strength and sexiness and her need to be loved, Emma Fielding is very good as Gwen, struggling to hold on to her family and Polly Adams adds light touches (not to mention Martinis) as Catherine’s mother (although her predominantly English accent throughout did seem odd). Adam James is particularly strong as Don, caught between his staid C+ marriage and the possible fresh start with Catherine and convincingly conveys his character’s inability to understand what he actually wants without feeling unlikeable. However it is Shannon Tarbet as Avery who steals the show with some truly sharp and witty one-liners and who you cannot fail to like.

The set works well, making effective use of the Hampstead space and thankfully on my second visit there seemed to be no issues with the mechanics, which on the day of the first preview had suffered problems, treating those of us there that night to a public dress rehearsal of sorts.

I found this to be an intelligent, sharply witty play, which at its heart is filled with the nuances of human relationships and emotions.

Rapture, Blister, Burn is at the Hampstead Theatre until 22nd February 2014. Tickets are selling quickly but there is limited availability towards the end of the run via the theatre website: www.hampsteadtheatre.com


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