It is mostly all talk at Bella’s twenty-ninth birthday party in a noisy restaurant bar, so the title of Nina Raine’s debut play (transferred from the Old Red Lion) is the apt cockney slang word for chattering. Or, as much of the drunken, acrimonious banter is girl talk, maybe the fastest selling sex aid in Ann Summers is the titular object.

Then, right at the end, Bella’s dying father closes the bedroom door on his daughter as a little girl and calls her “rabbit,” her pet name. The unresolved relationship with her father (hauntingly played by Hilton McRae) cross-fades with the raucous party, which Bella conducts as some kind of wild resistance to her filial duty.

As studio, small-scale plays go, Rabbit is pretty good, lively and enthralling, with funny, pacey dialogue and a real bite to the skirmishes in the sex war. As a first play, it is nothing short of remarkable, full of fizz, bounce and promise, and imbued with an obviously authentic experience of life among rivalrous young professionals on the brink of careers and personal commitments.

Bella, whom the wonderful Charlotte Randle plays with a dewy-eyed ardour and emotional transparency that kept reminding me of Harriet Walter’s Cleopatra at Stratford this year, is a high-flying PR executive. Her ex-boyfriend Richard (Adam James, a Rory Bremner lookalike) is a divorced high-flying barrister with aspirations as a writer, only too quick to remind Bella that she failed to make the grade as a lawyer.

Bella’s coltish, flirtatious friend Emily (Ruth Everett, fresh from RADA), is a doctor who, coincidentally, has had professional dealings with Richard. But first, Bella and Emily hook up with Tom (Alan Westaway, dark and broody), who is something in the city; another ex of Bella’s whose genital proportions are discussed at some, well, length, behind his back. The group is completed by Susannah Wise’s mischievous blonde Sandy, another budding writer who stirs the sex object debate on bottoms.

That last passage proves that Nina’s her own father’s daughter; poet Craig Raine made a furry fundamental point or two in his early Martian poetry. As the bottles are emptied, so the conversation veers off into competitive riffs about professional status and sexual prejudice and attitudes. A question of who feels most patronised leads to Emily graphically, and interestingly, discoursing on her experience in surgery and her awakening passion for neurology.

And all the time Bella is being tugged back to her dying father, whose brain tumour is too big to be operable and whose treatment of Bella’s mother makes her sympathy for him so hard to maintain, let alone express.

The short two-act play, given in the small oblong box of the Trafalgar, is a fine addition to the West End list. Hilton McRae leaves the cast later this month to appear in Caroline, or Change at the National; he will be succeeded by Martin Turner, currently playing President Reagan in the Asian Dub Foundation’s Gaddafi at the ENO.

- Michael Coveney


Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from May 2006 and this production's earlier run at the Old Red Lion.

Nina Raine’s debut play is a moving look at a young woman’s relationship with her dying father, conveyed through flashbacks on a turbulent night out with her friends to celebrate her 29th birthday.

Bella (Charlotte Randle) is a smart, confident and often brash PR exec, who’s convinced that her father (Hilton McRae) is more impressed with her brothers (who we never meet) than with her. And, so she believes, he thinks she’ll never amount to anything – which is why she’s not a lawyer.

After an opening scene between father and daughter, we find Bella and her friend Emily (Ruth Everett) convened for the birthday drinks in a bar where Bella has just spotted past lover Tom (Rocky Marshall) and is trying to hide from him - before she changes her mind and calls him over. Despite her conflicting emotions about not being at home to tend to her ailing parent, Bella plays the good hostess to her birthday celebrants who soon arrive: barrister Richard (Adam James) who also wants to be a writer, and sex-obsessed author Sandy (Susannah Wise).

Often graphic sexual politics lead the conversation, the co-ed group’s amusing anecdotes and petty arguments reminiscent of a Coupling-esque modern sit-com. We learn that Bella had an affair with Tom while she was in a five-year relationship with Richard, and Richard and Emily have met before. The jealousies that emerge between the friends are both funny and poignant. Both men were once in love with Bella, and are frustrated even now that she can’t “accept love”, possibly for fear of getting hurt.

The lighter moments in the bar, which dominate the play, work well to balance out the scenes in which Bella remembers conversations with her father, though the latter lends weight to proceedings. Although troubled, the familial relationship is touchingly co-dependent towards the end.

Better known as a director, Raine assumes these duties with her own play, with effective results. The dialogue is perfectly timed, with just the right mix of banter, comedy, bitterness and seriousness.

Like Bella, who tries to prove women are just as good as men, Raine has staked her claim as a talented playwright in a family full of writers (her father is the poet and critic Craig Raine, while her brother Moses has just premiered his new play Shrieks of Laughter at Soho Theatre). Rabbit is a very promising start.

- Caroline Ansdell