Writer: Deborah Bruce
Director: Roxana Silbert
Raya is set up to be a slightly run-of-the-mill story about old flames reuniting, but with a fun spanner of a character thrown in the works to keep the play from being completely predictable. But it’s not that at all. In fact, Hampstead Theatre’s new show is made up nearly entirely of spanners.
Having spent the evening reconnecting at a university reunion, Alex (Claire Price) and Jason (Bo Poraj) find themselves back at the student lodgings that housed their relationship thirty years ago. But as they make clumsy attempts at conversation, drinking wine and trying to gauge each other’s intentions, Alannah (Shannon Hayes), a former tenant from the last academic year, is squatting upstairs, hoping to go unnoticed by the voices in the living room. The toilet being downstairs, she’s finally forced to scare the hell out of both Alex and Jason, and introduce herself.
Each comes to the story with their own tragedies and hardships, but whilst their problems are often mentioned and discussed, they’re rarely unpacked, and never truly resolved. That’s not what this story is. For them it feels like a much-needed respite from the daily grinds of their present lives, as well as being an incisive and challenging narrative all on its own, but it’s not a resolution. Everyone leaves with pretty much what they brought.
Trying to explain the plot here seems convoluted and clunky, but in action, it’s perfectly clear. Writer Deborah Bruce has managed to lattice a profusion of seemingly unrelated subject matter –nostalgic lust, menopause, mental health (across multiple generations), marriage, even touching on consent – creating something that feels very organic somehow.
Moi Tran’s design is necessarily simple, giving way to a lateral narrative. The lighting though is artful: whilst a single lamp serves the living room itself, ‘natural’ light and passing car beams draw long shadows, giving a feeling that they are all squatting and might be caught by their other lives at any minute.
Price and Poraj perfectly express that strange cocktail of familiarity and strangeness when encountering an old friend. They overlap sentences and trade in-jokes, whilst also constantly tripping over each other’s private lives of which they know nothing. It’s a comfortable awkwardness that wants to repair itself but can’t find a way.
Hayes’ character, Alannah, is harder to decipher because she doesn’t have an ally who knows her; there’s no-one there to corroborate what kind of person she is, which could easily have resulted in a heavy-handedness, or over-eagerness to express herself. Her performance, though, is full of sweet nuance and restraint, somehow communicating both shyness and eccentricity in abundance while handling some very uneasy subject matter.
Everybody is very likeable despite the many faux pas and fluctuating moods, and the dialogue is natural and witty, which maybe excuses a slightly strange combination of issues being discussed. Yes, there is a lack of resolution, which might be considered a flaw. But there is something far more sating in the messiness of life portrayed than if everyone had met on this one night and solved each other’s problems. Instead, each glimpses the other’s private hell, and as that old story goes, each would likely still choose their own problems than another’s.
Runs until 24 July 2021