David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole is delicate. It portrays the delicacy of one family’s new normality in grief and the delicacy of our own normality. Rabbit Hole shows us that it only takes a pinprick and a split second for our world to turn upside down, from where we too would have to re-normalise.
For Becca (Claire Skinner) and Howie (Tom Goodman-Hill) grief is particularly acute as they mourn the loss of their four-year-old son, Danny, who ran after his dog into the road to be knocked down by teenage driver, Jason (Sean Delaney). The thing is, grief is normal. We’ll all have to deal with it at some point and yet no one knows the rules of it. In fact, there are no rules or ways to behave, we’ll all just have to get on and do it. That is exactly where the beauty of Lindsay-Abaire’s writing lies: he gives us the varying modes of grief (between husband and wife) and adds to it the nuances of heightened tension. With it there is a perpetually bubbling undercurrent. By Lindsay-Abaire’s own admission, the hardest task that the actors face is to stop themselves over-playing it. Their child has died and they have to survive it. They have to continue to breathe, eat, work and sleep through it. Here, the cast certainly aren’t guilty of over-playing the fraught tenderness of their roles, but they do miss some key moments of tension in doing so.
Lindsay-Albaire has carefully layered strands of tension that interweave and bulk together as the story plays out. For instance, Becca’s sister, Izzy (Georgina Rich), is pregnant, a new child born into the family: a replacement of sorts. Becca’s mother (Penny Downie) is constantly comparing Danny’s death to the death of her own son: a thirty-year-old heroin addict who hanged himself. Not to mention, the newly numbed husband and wife dynamic that sees Becca’s grief trajectory inadvertently knocking Howie’s out of joint. Becca is slowly endeavouring to power on, moving memories of Danny from her home so that she doesn’t have to be perpetually reminded. Whilst Howie wants to hold onto those reminders for as long as possible, so that his son’s existence isn’t forgotten. Within this dynamic there is a scene that holds the most potential for tension, yet seems to miss the mark – Howie’s attempt to regain their sex life, the seemingly ultimate normality. There is a missing sense of anguish, need and lust that could so effectively be derived from this rejection of the most human of human acts.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the moment Jason turns up to their house, unannounced and naïve. His arrival perfectly timed to crack their world of pretend normality. Minutes seem to go by with nothing said: just silence and goose bumps. Broken by Howie’s over-aggressive, uncensored cutting of the seventeen-year-old boy on his doorstep. Goodman-Hill’s delivery is so sharp that it cuts through the audience as much as it does Jason. It is played beautifully. Delaney acts Jason so simply that he is almost perfect. His character is the ideal antagonist to Becca and Howie. He is experiencing much of what they are but without the shade of experience. So, as he struggles to interpret his grief just as they are, he accepts that struggle openly while they keep it to gurgle in their guts. Trying and failing to maintain what they had before: middle class normality.
All of this is reflected in the set, which is a pretty spot on design by Ashley Martin-Davis. A pristinely comfortable home, stark white and beige, dotted with mauve and the remnants of a child. Their class is represented as much as their situation. It looks comfortable and is filled with discomfort. Most notably, Danny’s disused bedroom is on an upper floor, behind a gauze (for the first half) and all you can see is a mobile dangling in its primary colours, constantly looming over his family below.
It is this sense of looming: the unforgettable, the constant and the discomfort that unsettles us more than anything else. It made me gulp inwardly throughout and all the way home.
Rabbit Hole is playing Hampstead Theatre until 5 March 2016. For more information and tickets, see www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on