I need to break this habit of booking shows without reading what they are actually about. I guess I’m slightly uneducated in the theatre department, but I enjoy the unexpected and hate researching before reviewing. This was the first time I’ve heard about David Lindsay-Abaire and his play called Rabbit Hole. This was also my first visit to the Hampstead Theatre so I was a big kid again and hopped, skipped and jumped into this beauty…

hampstead theatre hello emma kay

Rabbit Hole was no great ball of fluff, but an emotional trap. Teased with carrots of comedy, it was a pretty grim tale. Wanting to pull out my witty rabbit quotes, “Eh, What’s up Doc?” seems slightly inappropriate here. Rabbit Hole was about a grieving mother, Becca, and father, Howie, barely coping with the death of their young son. Danny chased the family dog across the road and was hit by a car. The teenaged driver, Jason, contacts the family in hope to dedicate his writing to Danny’s memory, but digs himself a deeper hole.

Claire Skinner has the gift for working the stage as if it is her home. She gives Becca an innocent and vulnerable humour, delivered so effortlessly. She’s a totally believable wife as her domestic flusters over the housework. Becca is also a grieving mother and her shaky mannerisms suggest she’s feeling the strain. She responds to her sister’s pregnancy news with happiness, but you wince at her forced smile. She tidies the last remains of her son, including his clothes, toys and paintings on the fridge. With the permission from her husband, she and her mother tackle Danny’s bedroom with charity bags and boxes. It looks like a normal call to duty, but the scene twitches the eyes and nips the lips.

“Grieving people don’t wring their hands and sob every second. Sometimes they just have to do the dishes, or chat with the mailman”

Quote from The Will Mortimer Interview with David Lindsay-Abaire

Becca Claire Skinner Hello Emma Kay

There’s only one brief weep for her son as Becca and Jason meet. Jason (Sean Delaney) treads extremely carefully with Becca, eating her lemon squares and drinking a glass of unwanted milk. His vulnerability and hand fiddling nervousness suggests his ‘innocent’ victim, but his minor speeding claims fires up the blame game. Listening to his future university plans, the scene screams awkward and you beg for the fast forward button.

Rabbit Hole is burrowed into the bonding of women: Becca, her sister Izzy (Georgina Rich) and mother Nat (Penny Downie). The dynamics of this trio provide great comedy relief within tragedy. Izzy is the woman who takes Rabbit Hole for a youthful comical run and bunny hops her unexpected pregnancy into the family mix. Breeding like rabbits, Izzy knows her situation should be downplayed for her sister’s sake. Cue Nat, the mother who can’t shut up during those tense family discussions. Unafraid to discuss death and stir in drama, Nat becomes a soundboard for Becca, including explaining her first hand experience with grief.

Outnumbered by the ladies, Tom Goodman-Hill plays Howie with an interesting dominant grip on hardcore emotions. Normally, we see men stone-faced whilst women weep in these situations, but Tom’s performance breaks this stereotypical cycle. Howie watches family videos like a nighttime vigil, attends support classes despite his wife’s absence and likes the visual reminders of his son around the house. You support his calm exterior, praise his efforts to regain a sense of normality and humour, and egg on his wife to Let’s Marvin Gay and Get It On….or Netflix and chill with him.

Howie and Becca Hello Emma Kay

There’s plenty of light and shade to Howie though. His sister-in-law, Izzy, accuses him of flirting with another woman from the support class, stamping a big fat question mark under the modern rug. Thanks to Jason’s appearance, Howie’s cool calm guy is suddenly snapped. The flash of caveman anger explodes, skinning away his composure and revealing the raw meat of Rabbit Hole: Grief. Demanding “I want the dog back“, Tom Goodman-Hill’s heart breaking delivery of “I miss him”, leaves you clueless – is he talking about the family dog or their son?

“When I was a student at Juilliard, my teacher, Marsha Norman, said to us once, ‘if you want to write a good play, write about the thing that frightens you most in the world. Really think about that fear, and try to dramatize it’…Then a few years later I became a dad, and when my son Nicholas was three I heard in quick succession two of three stories about friends of friends who had children die very suddenly and unexpectedly”

Quote from The Will Mortimer Interview with David Lindsay-Abaire

Like grief, Rabbit Hole’s ending has no closure, just Becca and Howie sitting on the sofa, holding hands. It feels wrong to say I enjoyed this play, but Rabbit Hole has heart. David Lindsay-Abaire chases our ghouls of death and grief, forces them into the spotlight and then buries them into Rabbit Hole. Nat explains to Becca that grief is like carrying a brick in your pocket. You adapt to the weight of it, can be heavier or lighter, sometimes you’ll forget it’s even there, but the loss will never go away. Battling the lumps in our throats, there was an united silence across the auditorium. The coughs, sneezes and mutters stopped. At this moment, I’m sure every audience member pictured their loved one….

My Nana 1928 - 2001 (1)
Got to love the matching coats!

Leaving the Hampstead Theatre, I came away with a spring in my step. Rabbit Hole gave me their first dose of real theatre goodness. On the staircase to Swiss Cottage tube station, I watched a mother zip up her young son’s coat through wet eyes. You know when a play is really good when your view is completely altered and you treat children like angels even when they kick your seat on the way home…

Rabbit Hole closes on Sat 5 March 2016. Book here.


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