by David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by Lawrence Carmichael
Union Theatre – until 1 May 2022
Premiered in New York in 2006 with a cast headed by Sex And The City’s Cynthia Nixon and including the estimable Tyne Daly, David Lindsay-Abaire’s robust yet delicate piece, which considers the fall out from a child’s death, is a compelling tragicomedy. Depicting the multiple ways we deal with grief, it has biting humour, wisdom, and, over and above everything else, a love of flawed humanity that elevates a witty, clear-eyed script into something with real resonance.
A movie version starring Nicole Kidman was seen in 2011 followed five years later by the Edward Hall-helmed UK staging at Hampstead Theatre featuring a heartrending Claire Skinner. Good as that iteration was, Lawrence Carmichael’s intelligent, emotionally astute new production feels more vivid and urgent. If it’s more stylised – Ethan Cheek’s striking living room/kitchen set demonstrates that from the outset, with every prop, fitting and furnishing washed a delicate white, the only flashes of colour coming from anything child-related, such as a kid’s book, the baby clothes bereaved mother so lovingly folds away, or the tumble of toys suspended above, at once a torment and a comfort to the grieving parents, and note the awkward angles the furniture’s placed at, as though a metaphor for the fractured relationships – it is also more imaginatively theatrical. This theatricality, though subtle, adds a welcome extra layer of interest to a script that, although beautifully turned and commendably unsentimental, sometimes threatens to read and sound like a low-key screenplay rather than a full-blooded stage property.
Becca and Howie lost their four year old son ten months ago, in a freak driving accident involving teenager Jason, who now reaches out to make tentative contact. Becca’s irresponsible younger sister Izzy has accidentally fallen pregnant, and their own mother Nat is on hand to offer a suitably jaundiced, wine-soaked commentary. Actually, Lindsay-Abaire’s script is richer and more complex than that shorthand description might suggest, featuring a fascinating, borderline antagonistic tension between Howie and his sister-in-law, and a subtle suggestion that Nat sometimes feels socially inferior to her fiscally successful older daughter. Emma Vansittart exquisitely suggests the conflict between maternal affection and garrulous resentment, despite having an innate elegance that seems slightly at odds with the character as written.
The acting throughout is impressive, and even if the American accents sometimes waver, the laser-sharp precision of the emotion seldom does. Julia Papp and Kim Hardy are utterly riveting as a broken couple who still love each other but are in utter turmoil, and there’s sensitive work from Max Pemberton as the kid who unwittingly engineered their tragedy and is desperate to make some sort of reparation. Ty Glaser’s wild card sister Izzy is funny, unsettling and just flat-out terrific.
Lindsay-Abaire is probably best known in this country as the book writer for the musical version of Shrek, although Good People, his coruscating examination of the gulf between urban Chicagoan haves and have-nots was a hit in it’s UK premiere starring Imelda Staunton. In all honesty, Rabbit Hole is the slightly inferior play, less robust and universal, but Carmichael’s engrossing production makes a very strong case for it here and provides a genuinely satisfying night in the theatre. Recommended.