Theatre Review: Raving, Hampstead Theatre, London

Robert Webb and Tamzin Outhwaite in Raving

Robert Webb and Tamzin Outhwaite in Raving

Last time I was at the Hampstead Theatre I saw the riveting, moving Di and Viv and Rose, starring former EasterEnder Tamzin Outhwaite.

Tamzin’s back at the Hampstead Theatre once again, this time playing a wobbly-lipped mum on a mini-break in Wales with five people she doesn’t like very much (one of them being her husband) in Simon Paisley Day’s comedy of not so much errors as howling blunders.

Raving has been pretty much universally panned by the critics, all except the Daily Mail, whose theatre critic Quentin Letts thought it was a bona fide classic (‘bona fide’, by the way, has a small starring role in Raving), which is worse than all those two-star reviews.

Raving is not subtle; it’s like being hit over the head with a sledgehammer of stereotypes and Carry On worthy smut. At times, in fact most of the time, it’s crass, brash and utterly daft. The characters are straight out of the writers’ book of stereotypes; the set-up no more imaginative (three mish mashed couples in a holiday cottage in Wales); the plot – what there is of it – as revolutionary as an episode of Last of the Summer Wine. Throw in an ill advised sexual assault on a 17-year-old as a gag and you have, in theory anyway, the recipe for the year’s worst play.

But despite all that’s wrong with it, I rather enjoyed Raving. It’s easy, unchallenging and well acted theatre. It may not be clever, but it is, at times, funny, and while it may not say much about the human condition like, say, Ibsen, it says uncomfortably too much about the times we live in.

Tamsin Outhwaite is ‘neurotic’ (read: depressed, I did say it wasn’t subtle) Briony who along with her partner Keith (Barnaby Kay) are having their first weekend away together since the birth of their son, three-year-old Fin. Briony’s still breast feeding which is a source of several of the jokes, some better than others. Their impossibly perfect friends Ross (Russell Brand-botherer Robert Webb) and Sarah Hadland’s Rosy (those of the liberal pretensions, but Daily Mail heart) have organised the cottage in the Welsh countryside. Filling in for another couple at the last minute are poshos Charles (Nicholas Rowe) and Serena (Issy Van Randwyck) who Briony had minutes before their arrival been ranting about their awfulness. Cue one hell of a class clash. Ironically considering it’s five star review, the couple who the Daily Mail hold up as custodians of society (employed, white, middle class, stay-at-home mum) are the very ones who fall the furthest as they are exposed as the racist, snobbish, self-serving hypocrites they are behind the doors of their million-pound-plus homes.

To add to the melee of disorder is Serena’s niece Tabby who likes sex and drugs and talks like she’s sitting at the back of the N29. She’s more overdone than a burnt steak and about as appealing. She is a useful Eve to lure out Ross’s true character under that smug PR schtick, but otherwise a rather heavy handed distraction.

The ‘episode’ where Ross preys on her prone 17-year-old sleeping body is badly judged and, at best, distasteful, although justice of sorts if dished out to Ross whose future looks bleaker than the London November sky at 4pm.

This isn’t the only WTF moments in Raving, although it’s the most unappetising. Other niggles include how would resolutely middle class R&R know hunting-shooting-fishing Barber-wearing C&S? And why would Serena make a comment about being too far away from the ‘metropol’ when surely her and her red cord wearing husband’s natural inhabit is in a field?

Props must go to the actors who lift what could have been an embarrassment into an enjoyable two and a half hours of farce. Raving may be no masterpiece, but it’s a fun piece of very modern theatre with some laughing-into-the-back-of-your-hand moments mixed with some cringe-worthy clangers. This isn’t a play for everyone, but if you don’t mind full-on silliness and can look past the ‘erm, awkward’ parts it’s escapist fun.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Ghosts, Almeida Theatre, London

Lesley Manvile as Helen Alving

Lesley Manvile as Helen Alving

Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s 1881 play Ghosts at the Almeida Theatre is 90 galloping minutes of incest, STDs, adultery, fire and death punctuated by some unexpected black humour (although don’t go expecting knock-knock jokes).  

Stranded on a blustery island in the middle of nowhere (although, my guess would be somewhere in the North Sea), Helene Alving  has a past that she’d very much like to forget. The past, however, isn’t quite so keen to let go of her, and its ghosts rattle around the empty rooms of Helene’s gloomy house, haunting her unhappy present.

After years of suffering and deceit, Helene hopes to exorcise her demons by revealing the brutal truth about her late husband to their son, Oswald who’s back home after living it up as an artist in bohemian Paris.

This being an Ibsen play, Helene’s idea to erase the past with some good old fashioned truth-telling goes awry as soon as the theatre lights dim. The dirt gets raked up before I’ve barely taken a sip of my wine by bossy boots Pastor Manders (Will Keen) who manages to bully the strong, yet fragile Helene (an amazing Lesley Manville) into revealing some of the murkier bits of her past. Accompanying this showdown is the pattering of rain that provides the perfect glum soundtrack  as Helene spills her demons much to the astonishment of the thought-he-knew-it-all Pastor . We learn, before they do, Oswald and Regina the maid (Charlene McKenna), who are making lovey-dovey eyes at each other, have a little more in common than an interest in French.

And then Oswald (Jack Lowden), a great hunky slice of Scandinavian blondness who looks like he could take all the slings and arrows of outrageous Norwegian misfortune, falls foul of syphilis, an inherited gift from his drunk, womanising father (thanks dad!). A particularly nasty sort of ghost.

The 90 minutes of gut-wrenching theatre plays out on largely dimly lit stage, the soft patter of rain setting the rhythm of the play. By the end, everyone and everything is in ruins, expect the man that Regina believes to be her father, Jacob Engstrand, who at least has his Home For Seamen (for now). Poor Lesley Manville looked traumatised as she look her well deserved bow.

The ghosts are all metaphysical, but Tim Hatley’s clever stage design separates the front of the stage from the back with a sheer screen, showing the characters in phantom  form when they’re not ‘in action’.

Back in staid old Victorian England (and even Norway may have been a little bit uptight in the 18th century) the themes in Ghosts (sex, syphilis and sibling flirting) would have had audiences reaching for the smelling salts. The play’s shocks are different for a modern audiences, but it stills leaves you reeling – the brutality of life, the powerlessness of the wife, the deception, the betrayal – I needed more than just that glass of wine afterwards.  But for all its doom, gloom and emotional brutality, Richard Eyre’s Ghosts is an engrossing and massively enjoyable hour and a half of heart-wringing theatre that will play in your head and heart for weeks to come.

by Suzanne Elliott