Rabbit Hole (Hampstead Theatre)

Edward Hall directs David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama

Tom Goodman-Hill (Howie) and Claire Skinner (Becca) in Rabbit Hole at Hampstead Theatre
Tom Goodman-Hill (Howie) and Claire Skinner (Becca) in Rabbit Hole at Hampstead Theatre
© Manuel Harlan

Mourning becomes electric when you are learning how to grieve, and the New York suburban couple beautifully played by Claire Skinner and Tom Goodman-Hill in David Lindsay-Abaire‘s taut, unsentimental play are struggling to cope with the death of their young son eight months ago in a car accident.

I found the Nicole Kidman movie of Lindsay-Abaire’s 2005 play moving but also moving towards the mawkish, and we now see that the "opening out" didn’t really do the piece any favours. There’s a particular theatrical pertinence and skill about the way information is released here, developed sideways, almost, in sharp, spiky encounters in the couple’s Larchmont living room.

While Claire’s Becca is looking for impossible closure – folding away clothes for the charity shop, tidying up toys, and mulling over a letter from Jason, the 17 year-old who was driving the car – Goodman-Hill’s Howie is trying to reignite the marriage, watching old family tapes, suggesting a house move.

Becca’s sister Izzy (vividly played by Georgina Rich) is pregnant herself, she's just slugged her boyfriend’s ex on a drunken night out in Yonkers, which doesn’t do much for Becca’s sense of fairness. And their mother Nat – Penny Downie releases, delightfully, her inner Bea Arthur on this tactless old trout – makes things worse by trying to find consolation in the curse of the Kennedys.

You could say that this grim festival of grief becomes over-schematic when we learn that Nat, too, has lost a child in more self-inflicted circumstances, but the writing and, especially, the quiet, steely acting in Edward Hall‘s exemplary production – design by Ashley Martin-Davis, lighting by Rick Fisher – hold that caveat at bay.

And when Jason does enter the fray – Sean Delaney, newly graduated from RADA, makes an impressive, un-showy professional debut – his stillness and frankness are as unexpected as they are refreshing. I especially like the way the play deals both thoughtfully and ambiguously with the difficulties in the marriage, the misfire of an obvious sofa huddle with Al Green and a massage, for instance; or Izzy’s bitchy conclusion on having seen Howie with another woman in a coffee shop.

The nightmare, if not the reality, of losing a child is common ground, and theatrical dynamite from the Greeks onwards. This is the second play this week – after Ibsen’s The Master Builder – to feature a marriage faltering around an upstairs empty bedroom. When Skinner sits alone in that bedroom with the letter, or on the sofa with Howie in the last, highly charged scene, you feel the full force of a modern tragedy.

Rabbit Hole runs at Hampstead Theatre until 5 March.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.