Review: Raya (Hampstead Theatre)

Deborah Bruce’s new play opens to mixed results

Claire Price, Bo Poraj and Shannon Hayes
Claire Price, Bo Poraj and Shannon Hayes
© Robert Day

If you hadn't seen an old flame for many years and then met them at a university reunion, what would you do – reminisce about the glory days or try to relive them? This is the question posed by Raya, new writing from Deborah Bruce and directed by Hampstead's artistic director Roxana Silbert in her first Downstairs production.

Ex-lovers Alex and Jason, played by Claire Price and Bo Poraj respectively, convene at their old student house with different things on their mind. Given these are deserted student digs, it would be suspect if Moi Tran's set was cluttered with objects other than takeaway menus. Her thoughtful design is restrained to a few temperamental lamps and cardboard boxes on which the two main characters drink mugs of wine and try to piece through what their relationship meant to each other. There is undoubtedly a charm to these moments and it is hard not to feel nostalgic watching two middle-aged characters back at the scene of where their friendship began, although things begin to intensify once Alannah (Shannon Hayes) disrupts their evening.

There are a lot of ideas condensed into Raya's 80 minute running time and it is difficult to keep up with the many twists and turns the plot takes. The effect of misremembering past events, dealing with grief and critiquing the idea of marriage are just some of the concepts raised, and whilst they are all interesting in their own right, they feel somewhat superficially explored.

The play simply tries to do too much by tackling all of them at once and the result is quite a confusing experience at times, not helped by some strange left turns in the script. The sub plot concerning Alex's son's sexual assault trial seems like a good example – what does this detail serve? It is mentioned in passing and never really brought up again. If the point is to highlight the safety of young women on student campuses, then why not explore the subject a little deeper rather than offering one or two lines.

Where Raya does deserve credit is the honest and unflinching depiction of the menopause on stage. Alex's character feels excellently written here as she clearly struggles to come to terms with a body and a mind that she no longer recognises as her own. Bruce balances serious points with humour as well, drawing laughs from the audience, and is assisted by an excellent turn from Claire Price. Watching her shame and anger at uncontrollably breaking down at the start of the play is one of the most intense moments of the entire production. Her internal struggles are aided by Nick Powell's sound design, as occasionally Alex's scattered thoughts echo and swirl around the room in an incoherent babble.

Ultimately Raya has potential but feels muddled. It's difficult not to think that the play has bitten off slightly more than it can chew, and might have been better served honing in on just two or three of these issues rather than trying to cover all bases.

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Closed: 24 July 2021