Hands up if you can think of a decent play that deals with the menopause. There was the dodgy sounding Menopause the Musical at the Shaw Theatre in 2007 but it's fair to say that wasn't a hit. So well done Deborah Bruce for acknowledging the crisis that grips every woman at some point in their lives in a way that doesn't feel icky. “Just you wait” says the 49 year old Alex to Alannah, a blissfully ignorant 20. “It will happen to you. You won't recognise a single thought in your head. You'll cry all the time, forget everything. You'll go from being a perfectly normal shape to looking like a toddler made you out of playdough.”
Bruce's grown up new play takes place over one night, in the small hours following a college reunion that marks the first time old flames Alex (Claire Price) and Jason (Bo Poraj), both married, have seen each other in decades. Now they are back at the house Jason rented from his parents while a student, with its blancmange-coloured walls and whiff of “peaches and gas”, as Alex puts it. Played with febrile radiance by Claire Price, she's sexually playful and visibly hopeful, despite the frequent “ambush” of crying jags and hot flushes, and effortfully eager to recreate old times, right down to drinking wine out of mugs. Bo Poraj's more seemingly straightforward Jason, a successful entrepreneur, isn't so sure – it's soon clear the adult upgrade to wine glasses is the least of the differences between him now and his student self.
Quite apart from the refreshing sight of two adults on the cusp of 50 negotiating the sort of alcohol-fuelled sexual uncertainties that are usually the preserve of 20-something characters, Bruce is acute on the way personal anxieties and need cloud our ability to read another person. There is comedy of the most painful sort as Alex and Jason ping back and forth, Alex lurching between desire and disappointment in ways that feel both genuine and vaguely manipulative; Jason preoccupied but at pains to remain decent. A third character, Alannah, further complicates the dynamic – she's a former tenant of Jason's who in a not-entirely-persuasive bit of plotting has snuck into the house for the night following a mix up over accommodation. She mistakes Alex for Jason’s wife Raya, a therapist whom she never met but with whom she had struck up a confiding relationship on email. And, as Alex desperately seeks recognition of her value to Jason, so the troubled Alannah, in a beautifully touching performance from Shannon Hayes, does something similar with Raya/Alex.
Roxana Silbert's production is so superbly calibrated to each twitching nerve end and hair pin shift, it makes the play feel sharper than it actually is. If the recognition of hormonal feminine volatility feels almost radical, the play ultimately treads pretty familiar ground as Alex and Jason wrestle with the mid-life schism between dreams and despairing disillusionment. Certain plot points, including a thread concerning Alex’s university son Charlie who is evidently in some trouble, and a fleeting reference to a mental health crisis experienced by Jason, feel undeveloped and tacked on. Yet if the writing sometimes stretches credulity, the performances never do. I suspect Raya would appear over-exposed on the Hampstead main stage but in the bijou studio space it sits just right.
Until Jul 24. Tickets: 020 7722 9301; hampsteadtheatre.com