Simon Paisley Day's new play starring Tamzin Outhwaite and Robert Webb opened at the Hampstead Theatre last night
Brilliant comic actor Simon Paisley Day has written plays before, but Raving, a bad-taste weekend fracas in a Welsh country cottage, is his first prominent London production, and it serves up plenty of laughs without quite convincing as a fully operational farce.
Edward Hall's production sets off at such a panicky, frantic pace that the slightest stumble or hitch – and there were a few on opening night – undermines the overall momentum. Three pairs of London parents, plus a wayward nymphomaniac teenage niece, are getting away from the kids and renewing their carnal enthusiasms.
Or, at least, that's the idea. We first see Tamzin Outhwaite as a young middle-aged school teacher expressing breast milk for the three year-old she's never left at home before; turns out, weirdly, that her milky nectar keeps husband Keith (bearded, twitchy Barnaby Kay), also a teacher, sweet and frisky, too.
Then there are Serena and Charles (svelte, domineering Issy van Randwyck, and gormlessly ramrod Nicholas Rowe) as a foul-mouthed doctor and an ex-army officer birdbrain – they have great sex, involving disciplinary measures on the naughty step – and a pair of smugly virtuous PR consultants, Ross and Rosy (a blissfully hypocritical Robert Webb and a steely, contented Sarah Hadland).
The local farmer (Ifan Huw Dafydd), who's rented out the cottage, is none too happy about the arrangements but is assuaged with Ross's unlikely excuse that they're all on religious retreat, a pretence that is systematically undermined during the long night of the rave in the next valley; this follows a suspicious account of Ross's campaign of resistance to the needy au pair back home.
Some devices work better than others. There's a fairly funny pay-off with the breast milk, but the stuck door gag is over-worked on Jonathan Fensom's cluttered cottage design. With the others out for a walk, Bel Powley's nightmare niece, Tabby (who's made an explosively angry entrance in an open-top Saab), bares her breasts to Ross, who's cutting up vegetables.
He drops the Sabatier on his foot, where it sticks, giving him a nice hop and hobble for the rest of the play. That's funny. But Charles relieving himself in the sink is much less so. And as the chaos escalates through the night, it emerges with grim predictability that Tabby has also introduced herself to the farmer's disabled son.
The fact that Paisley Day excels in so many areas, and can write funny lines and speeches, only shows how difficult creating good farce is. In trying to combine the deftness of Ben Travers's Rookery Nook, say, with the comic moral seriousness of Peter Nichols's Chez Nous, Paisley Day sometimes sacrifices the priority of old-fashioned technical construction to an instinct for modern shock tactics.
It's an experiment that fails, but it's an honourable failure, and there are plenty of performances to enjoy, notably Outhwaite's as the frantic and fragile milk matron and Webb as a slithery victim of his own dishonesty, sidling around the stage with a fixed stare and flared nostrils not unlike a beleaguered Stanley Baxter.
Read more about the play in our interview with author Simon Paisley Day