Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole, Alice’s tunnel into the weird world of wonderland, has evolved in everyday culture as a phrase to describe the journey, sometimes involuntary, into an often disorientating alternate reality. It describes the liminal space of transportation, a place which bridges the world you once lived in and the place you find yourself now.
Falling into a rabbit hole you didn’t want to stumble down, one which does not include your children, that’s the fate of Becca Corbett (Claire Skinner). For Becca and her husband Howie (Tom Goodman-Hill), their world remains remarkably similar: she still does her son’s laundry, they still live in the same home, and their son’s bedroom remains littered with his belongings. But it is the overwhelming absence of Danny which marks their new world, which provides the lingering evidence of the journey and the constant reminder of no return. In David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer-winning play, the rabbit hole signifies loss, a loss that you ‘crawl out from under and carry around like a brick in your pocket’.
Edward Hall’s production is as much about the alternate realities as it is about the journeys between them. Becca’s pregnant sister Izzy (Georgina Rich) reflects a whole other world, one full of strong Westchester accents, where chairs are built for crouching not sitting, where life is full of bar brawls and beginnings. Effort is made to distinguish Izzy from Becca, presenting us with two sisters living in parallel universes. Meanwhile their mother Nat (Penny Downie) obsesses over the Kennedys, arguing that their unique existence, their bizarre reality, can ultimately explain their misfortune: had they not had private jets, those jets would never have crashed. Their fates were built by their reality.
Rabbit Hole is at its best when exploring these possible worlds. Becca herself first finds reprieve by connecting with a teenage boy discussing scientific theories of alternate dimensions. There’s a type of freedom offered by contemplating other realities, the kind which can also be found by revisiting old memories. It’s what makes the possible and actual so radically different: one provides an escape, and one is inescapable.
The absent son must therefore be a constant presence, one cleverly made concrete by his second-floor bedroom jutting out and hanging over the play space, literally looming over the action. But Lindsay-Abaire steers clear of overt displays of loss, even providing an author’s note warning against turning the play into ‘self-indulgent grief porn’. The tragedy should be found in the details.
The problem is, the broader strokes become too artificial. Skinner’s performance is refined and Rich offers an excellent contrast, but overall there is a stiltedness, a restraint that mars the production. Grief isn’t something that can be too overtly crafted. It is a constantly turbulent force that churns and boils over that early productions this season like Ibsen’s Little Eyolf at the Almeida or Icke’s Oresteia portrayed to its complexity. At Hampstead Theatre the flood defenses are up and the rabbit hole is man-made.
It’s a bit like only ever eating beautiful desserts, something that they do almost exclusively throughout Rabbit Hole. Torte, cake, lemon squares, crème brulee (they even take the time to ‘brule’ the brulee). While delicious, it is unsustainable and ultimately unfulfilling. This is not the fault of a script that offers an understated but complex portrait of loss. Instead, it is a production trapped by its confines, consciously crafted but ultimately insubstantial.
Rabbit Hole is on until 5th March 2016 at Hampstead Theatre. Click here for details.