Rapture, Blister, Burn, Hampstead Theatre, London – review

Let me be quite clear right at the start: when I say that this play is dull because for the most part it contains nothing but conversation about various feminist theories, I do not mean that those theories are what make it dull. Interestingly, it gives equal time and weight to the views of conservative Phyllis Schlafly that equality for women in feminist terms would rob them of existing areas of overt or implicit control. But simply putting these views into the mouths of characters in a series of college seminars makes for dreadfully dreary drama. Author Gina Gionfriddo says in the programme that she deliberately rebelled against the principle that “drama comes from action and from characters who pursue goals passionately”, so she has no one to blame but herself.

A few decades ago the Hampstead Theatre was stereotyped as presenting dramas about the lives of the Hampstead theatregoing class, the genre known as “adultery in NW3”. This is precisely that genre, transplanted to a minor and unnamed American campus town. Don is an underachieving college dean, Gwen his controlling wife, Catherine their old friend and Don’s ex, now a successful feminist author and cultural commentator, who has returned to nurse her convalescent mother. Catherine works up a series of classes on feminism, media and culture in which her students are Gwen and Avery, a near-dropout from the college and the other couple’s former babysitter. They talk. A lot. About theory. About practice. About the world. About movies. About themselves.

Two-thirds of the way through, something finally happens: they agree to switch, with Gwen going to postgraduate summer school in New York and Don moving in with Catherine; but hardly has it started happening before it stops again, with a lot of talk along the way and afterwards. It says something (ha) that the biggest laugh of the press night came when the woman in front of me involuntarily gasped an incredulous “What?!” at a particular line.

Jonathan Fensom’s revolve-based set is nimble and versatile. Emma Fielding, Emilia Fox and Adam James are solid as Gwen, Catherine and Don, but Shannon Tarbet and Polly Adams as Avery and Catherine’s mother steal almost all their scenes given half a chance. Overall, though, it is hard to defend thinking dramas in general against bigoted accusations of sterile worthiness when there are pieces like this providing evidence for the prosecution.


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