Alex (Claire Price) and Jason (Bo Poraj) are stumbling around in the dark after a fairly drunken and faintly depressing university reunion. They were lovers as students and now, back in the house where they first hooked up, they’re looking to rekindle things. Only they can’t find a light. “Is there meant to be electricity?” asks Alex. It’s a line that is supposed to shimmer with subtext but feels heavy handed in a play about lost love, lost youth and lost people that fails to flare into life.
Deborah Bruce’s previous play at Hampstead theatre, Godchild, was about a fortysomething woman struggling to let go of her youth. In Raya, the female protagonist, Alex, is a few years older and in the grips of menopause. Price performs with a fragile intensity and Alex’s monologues contain a few striking observations (“I can’t be at home – I’m drab in all my mirrors”). But the vast majority of the play does not feel this focused or truthful. The plot twists, when they eventually come, land with a thud. Price and Poraj have a nice spiky chemistry but the erratic script often works against them. There’s an extraordinarily hard-working bottle of wine, which is used with alarming regularity to keep the play moving, and the characters are given increasingly random reasons to drink, stay on stage and keep talking.
It all comes across as highly engineered – a feeling that director Roxana Silbert often underlines with some fairly laboured lighting states (there’s a lot of pink throbbing when the menopause comes up). The third character, Alannah, is infused with touching vulnerability by Shannon Hayes, but is largely there to explore ideas that are literally tattooed across her body (one reads: “Grief lurks around corners”).
The characters spend a lot of time talking at cross-purposes or holding on to secrets the audience couldn’t hope to suspect or sense. And if they’re not talking in riddles then they’re spelling out their feelings: “I don’t think I’m escaping myself – I’m looking for myself.” It’s a shame because there’s an interesting character lurking in here – but there needs to be a lot more digging.
Raya is at Hampstead theatre, London, until 24 July