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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Rapture, Blister, Burn
Hampstead Theatre  January-February 2014

I delight in plays of ideas, by authors who – like Shaw and occasionally David Hare – can make the debate and exchange of ideas theatrically exciting. And I delight in playwrights who can take familiar, even hackneyed elements and arrange them in unexpected and entertaining form. 

And so even if it weren't accompanied by sparkling direction and energetic and attractive performances (which it is), I'd find a lot to recommend in Gina Gionfriddo's often funny and sometimes touching dissection of American feminism today. 

Two university friends took separate paths. One married the other's boyfriend and settled into wife-and-mother role while the other became a celebrity academic, writer of trendy books and TV talking head. Now in their 40s, both are beginning to doubt their choices and question how and why they got there. 

That the academic is teaching a course on the history of American feminism that the housewife chooses to take, along with a bright and spunky 22-year-old and (as a drop-in) the teacher's mother, gives Gionfriddo the opportunity to offer the audience a literal seminar on the topic, filled with references to Betty Friedan, Phylis Schlafly and other writers and with thought-provoking analyses ranging from sexual politics through horror movies to how-to-get-and-keep-your-man strategies. 

What keeps this theatrically alive, apart from electric performances, is that the basic questions of modern feminism – how much freedom does a modern woman have and what obligation does she have to make use of it – are of immediate and personal concern to these characters for their own plot-driven reasons. 

Academic theory, personal stories and passionate emotions blend dramatically, sometimes in surprising ways, as when the women's individual relations with men drive them toward more sympathy with the ultra-conservative Schlafly's preachings than they might have thought possible. 

Meanwhile there's a familiar plot going on in the background, as the high-flyer's reunion with her old boyfriend has predictable results – but again the playwright takes this into surprising territory as nobody reacts to the romantic triangle in ways decades of soap operas have led us to expect. 

In short, then, this is a play filled with ideas, inhabited by attractive characters, peppered liberally with sprightly wit and comedy, that is entertaining when being most informative and thought-provoking when being most entertaining. 

If it has a weakness, it is that it is built on stock figures and situations, and you might occasionally be aware of the playwright's machinations, as when she strains a bit to bring those particular four female archetypes into the same classroom. And so much credit must go to director Peter DuBois and his actors for so fully fleshing out the characters and investing them with so much individuality and vitality. 

Emilia Fox shows us the loneliness of the successful feminist without milking the sentimentality or negating the character's strength, while Emma Fielding invests the country mouse with sufficient backbone and intelligence to keep her from becoming a figure of fun or pity. 

Adam James brings a warmth and reality to the low-flying husband who is actually content being a C-average student now leading a C-average life, and Polly James as the wise and witty mother and particularly Shannon Tarbet as the no-nonsense young woman repeatedly steal scenes with the richness and energy of their performances.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Rapture, Blister, Burn - Hampstead Theatre 2014

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