With his new play Raving, Simon Paisley Day plays so safely with his premise, he might as well have given it armbands. Three couples – one mad, one bad, and one perfect – spend the weekend in a remote Welsh cottage to get a break from their kids and their stressful London lives. It’s just that the perfect couple, Ross and Rosy (played by Robert Webb and Sarah Hadland), are uncharacteristically late – what could have happened, we wonder? Are dark clouds finally rolling in over the valleys, perhaps?
The characterisation is also a little runny. Mad couple, Serena and Charles (Issy Van Randwyck and Nicholas Rowe), are so mad they practically – actually literally – ‘baah’ in the middle of their sentences. While bad couple, Briony and Keith (Tamzin Outhwaite and Barnaby Kay), neurotically bemoan why they can’t be as assured as their fellow guests, or as good and effortless parents to their offspring as the others clearly are – Briony and Keith have a three-year-old, Finn, who they haven’t quite managed to wean off the breast yet. The most roughly drawn character is Tabby, Serena’s 17-year-old Jafaican niece, who turns up unannounced at the beginning of act two and might as well have been drawn with a crayon.
Still, all of this is just about fine in a farce. It’s just that Raving never quite succeeds in becoming one. A lot of nonsense is said about plays ‘descending’ into farce when, of course, the action and reaction of a finely-wrought farce is far more precise and exactly worked-out than any other type of theatre. There are funny moments in Raving, certainly; there are some fabulous one liners and the cast work them expertly (more of that in a moment), but a full-on death-by-laughter farce it aint.
The main reason for this – to be slightly pompous for a moment – are the frequent lapses in what I’m going to call dramatic integrity. Though seemingly crazy things happen in a farce – obvious identities are mistaken, outrageous coincidences abound – the events have an integrity to them; there is a certain logic at work. Then, when things get manic at the end of a good farce and people start acting under all sorts of crazed misapprehension, we can understand why they are doing it. Here, it’s rather less clear. For instance, halfway through, Webb’s character tells the devout local farmer that the couples have come away on a religious retreat. It’s an admission entirely unnecessary, and when things really heat up in the final scene, he has to try frantically to keep up with the charade. But why? It is just a way to get more comic plates up and spinning. It is, at root, unearned tension.
However, as I hinted at earlier, though the script is a little run of the mill, the performances are categorically and uniformly spectacular. Nicholas Rowe and Issy Van Randwyck have an indecent amount of fun with mad poshoes Serena and Charles. Rowe in checks and burgundy chords is an absolute delight as ex-army Charles, who drinks like a fish and thinks the answer to any psycho or sexual problem is to go off and have a good shoot. Van Randwyck plays Serena like a madder, younger Sandi Toksvig, and comes into her own in the penultimate scene when she tries to work off a hangover by dishing out some rough, and rather frothy justice.
Tamzin Outwaite gives post-natal Briony just the right amount of self-awareness so that her character isn’t a total slog, and Kay gives Keith the well-meaning optimism of a normal(ish) sort of bloke in a tough situation.
Webb and Hadland are my personal favourites, though. Webb’s Ross initially comes across as just a smarmy sort of twat. It’s only when his hate-fuelled leering over Tabby comes out that the true darkness of his character comes through. It’s an excellent and assured performance and shows Webb as a nuanced and versatile actor. Hadland is similarly excellent as Rosy, a patronising and deluded woman who, at long last, gets too angry to keep lying to herself and snaps furiously. In the vitriolic rant that follows she simply takes control of the stage. It’s very impressive.
Edward Hall’s direction is pretty neat and despite one or two pacing problems in the first half, the play zips along fairy nicely. The action is well-marshaled, and never do the six actors get in each other’s way or feel clumped together or claustrophobic in Jonathan Fensom’s realistic cottage set. All in all, Raving is a fairly entertaining evening of theatre and the laughs are frequent enough. But the production’s successes have far more to do with the classy and experienced performances than the just about competent script.