Theatre review: Rapture, Blister, Burn at Hampstead Theatre

American playwright Gina Gionfriddo’s shakedown of 70s feminist theory and how women’s lives have, and haven’t changed, offers a sharp, witty, involving take on perennial women’s movement bugbears: pornography, sexual freedom and domesticity versus career.

Although most women these days struggle with both, for dramatic purposes Gionfriddo polarises the debate, unsisterly pitting sexy stiletto-wearing high-achieving academic Cathy against her dowdy, disapproving, erstwhile college room mate Gwen (Emma Fielding).

Between them is underachieving pot-smoking charmer Don, Cathy’s ex-boyfriend, now Dean of a middle-rank college and unhappily married to unfulfilled Gwen.

When her mother’s heart attack sparks an existential crisis for single Cathy, she moves back home to teach summer school and reacquaint herself with Don.

Completing the enjoyable tri-generational mix, Gionfriddo throws in Cathy’s sparky mum Alice and student babysitter Avery (brilliantly deadpan Shannon Tarbet), gifted the play’s best lines as she dispenses the youth perspective, barbed antagonism and eye-rolling advice to her middle-aged sisters.


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Inter-generational

All four have much to both debate and learn from each other, as Cathy’s seminars throw up violent porn, slasher movies, negotiating newfound freedoms (and living with the consequences) framed by the theories of Betty Friedan, Phyllis Schlafly and Carol Clover.

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The dialogue is whipcrack smart and, as the theories are latched onto various personal crises, the belly laughs are of painful recognition.

But while it’s welcome to dramatise women talking frankly, the second half disappointingly descends into that old trope of women solving relationship problems and discussing how to keep men, while the lone male character ruefully contributes little.

This is served with a slice of biological determinist claptrap about “cavemen” and “hard wiring” as though ‘men are just like that’, and a seriously ill-judged costume change as Emilia Fox’s touchingly needy Cathy attends a supposedly slovenly beer and pizza fest in skyscraper black patent heels and frilly black panties.

This dodginess is redeemed by an upbeat empowering ending and the warm humanity of Gionfriddo’s script.

****

Until February 22.

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