Elliot Douglas reviews Mermaids production of Rabbit Hole in Week 5 at the Stage.

Gosh – it’s quite depressing, isn’t it? There are a couple of laughs in this two-hour play, but they are few and far between, and managing to keep an audience hooked for that entire time takes a great deal of skill. Luckily, director Emma Gylling Mortensen, producer Benjamin Osugo and their team succeeded beautifully, bringing me to tears on more than one occasion as I huddled under a pile of my friends’ coats and scarves (the nights are fair drawing in).

I didn’t know the plot of Rabbit Hole before walking into the Stage, and I was in for a harrowing shock. Becca (Sarah Chamberlain) and Howie (Guy Harvey) are a young couple who, as slowly emerges, have recently lost their four-year-old son Danny in a car accident. They are aided and abetted through an awkward and painful grieving process by Becca’s pregnant sister Izzy (Katherine Somerby), mother Nat (Rachel Augustine) and, eventually, the driver of the car which inadvertently killed Danny, the naïve high school student Jason (Martin Caforio).

So far, so Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But where Edward Albee’s more famous play allows the characters to shout and yell at each other, David Lindsay-Abaire’s piece instead offers awkward silences and constantly has characters skirting around what they really want to say. It takes a masterful director and cast to handle such dialogue well, and I am pleased to report that this group of actors did it justice.

They are all worthy of complimentary words – so here are some. Somerby managed to keep the gobby and nosy Izzy an engaging and likeable presence on stage, while Augustine offered some of the funniest and also most moving lines of the night as a woman who had lost both a grandchild and a child of her own. Caforio’s almost painfully awkward performance was difficult to watch, especially as he sat with Becca attempting to seek absolution for what he had done. As Howie, Harvey kept the hidden layers of the character well controlled and yet completely transparent to the audience – he is a man just about keeping everything together, but who could crack at any moment.

Chamberlain, however, stole the show. As the neurotic and broken Becca she is perfectly cast. There were a few moments where she faded into the background of the set as she cleared away dishes or silently folded laundry, and even when she descended into silent, unostentatious tears in her meeting with her son’s killer. The realism that this performance brings – of a woman who doesn’t want to be watched, but simply wants to be left alone – was heartbreakingly accurate. She is sensationally talented, and every acting decision she made in this role was perfect.

The set was well-adapted to the awkwardly cavernous Stage, with the floor in front of the stage being used as a second level of Becca and Howie’s house, designed by Natasha Maurer. Accompanied with a simple lighting plan and beautifully-used projections at one point indicating a home video of Danny, it was elegant and moving. The only real criticism which I can level at the production was that there were a couple of times when it was difficult to make out actors’ words, especially in the case of Somerby, which made a few poignant moments lose their punch as the audience collectively leaned in to make out the dialogue.

Rabbit Hole was simple and certainly not innovative. As a piece of proscenium arch kitchen-sink theatre it ticked every box, and could very easily have become boring. But as a piece of student theatre its ambitions were realised and it achieved everything it set out to do. I am perhaps biased here – tragic domestic dramas are my jam and not knowing the plot meant that I was moved by the characters’ stories in real time.

The Week 5 slot is hard to fill, allowing so little rehearsal time. Nevertheless, Mortensen and co. produced, quite simply, one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen in five long years at St Andrews. Bravo.

Stars:*****