Can any woman have it all? Friends Gwen and Catherine have taken very different paths since leaving grad school; Catherine has had a very successful academic career, while Gwen has married Catherine’s former boyfriend, Don and settled into family life. When Catherine’s mother Alice is taken ill, she drops everything to return to her childhood home and find herself rekindling old friendships. Reunited for the first time in 10 years, both women are starting to covet each other’s life and when Catherine drunkenly suggests they should switch places, a dangerous game begins.
Ultimately, this is a play about ‘what ifs’, about love and relationships, about men and women – and feminism. I must however make the distinction that this is ABOUT feminism rather than being a feminist play (there is a difference); playwright Gina Gionfriddo is not pushing an agenda, simply observing the minefield of gender politics in modern society – it is savagely funny and some of the loudest laughter was coming from the men in the audience. I suspect that Hampstead Theatre have played down the feminism card in order not to put people off.
Catherine (Emilia Fox – currently in BBC’s Silent Witness) manages to be both alluring and approachable – there’s a real sense that she’s comfortable in her own skin and the life she has carved out for herself. She’s completely at ease in skinny jeans and stilettoes, a total contrast to Gwen (Emma Fielding), who in capri pants, loose blouse and deck shoes has settled into the lifestyle of full-time motherhood. She is happily resigned to the fact that her marriage has lost its spark, yet she has very little impetus to do anything about it. Gwen’s husband, Don (Adam James) is charismatic and funny – he always has a wisecrack up his sleeve and you can easily see how, by being a big kid at heart, he’s a great Dad but a crap husband. It’s hard to tell who drifted from who first; Gwen, into housework and bedtime stories or Don, into porn and smoking cannabis.
Alice (Polly Adams) succeeds in balancing 2 very unlikely characteristics; on the face of it, she has a gentle and cuddly disposition, but with a mischievous, subversive undercurrent. When Catherine realises she still has feelings for Don, Alice brightly observes: “you could have him, you know. He was yours first.” with an impish twinkle in her eye. It is this which sets Catherine thinking that perhaps if Don had married her, he’d be more motivated to get on in life, to write that book he was threatening to write. But he has relaxed into his apathy and equilibrium, so there is very little that anyone can do about it, even Catherine.
Avery (Shannon Tarbet) is Gwen and Don’s wayward teenage babysitter; young and naïve with a very stark black/white view of things, she has some really cracking lines delivered with unapologetic bluntness. She is hellbent on complete sexual liberation (much to the puzzlement of the 2 generations above her – for them, this wasn’t the aim of feminism), but it is Alice’s comment “a man won’t buy the cow if he’s getting the milk for free” which ultimately changes how Avery views her own feminist ideals and how she uses them in a way which is counter-intuitive to their ethos, but – for a while, at least – gets her what she wants.
Gionfriddo has written 5 likeable characters, all with their own very human shortcomings; this is an exploration of what happens when you drag up ghosts that have been laid to rest – none of them are bad people, but there is a conflict of interests. Yet in spite of the love triangle between 3 of them, you still find yourself wanting everyone to get their happy ending – and that’s just not possible.
Rapture, Blister, Burn is on at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, NW3 3EU until Saturday 22nd February 2014. Suitable for ages 16+. Contains strong language and references to sexual themes. For tickets and more information go to http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2014/rapture-blister-burn/