Raya review: This enjoyably twisty rollercoaster sometimes sputters

Raya at Hampstead Theatre (Robert Day)
Raya at Hampstead Theatre (Robert Day)

It looks straightforward: after a 30-year university reunion photographer Alex (Claire Price) and businessman Jason (Bo Poraj) tumble back into the student house his parents bought him, which he’s now about to sell. Will they or won’t they reignite old passions? From here, though, Deborah Bruce’s play zooms off in strange and intriguing directions. Roxana Silbert’s production is an enjoyably twisty 80-minute rollercoaster though, at times, to quote one of Alex’s later lines, “it feels a bit forced”.

The first, goosebump-raising surprise is the sudden appearance of one of Jason’s recent tenants in the house. Alannah (Shannon Hayes) is recently bereaved, fragile, and turns out to have developed an e-mail relationship with Jason’s wife Raya, a psychotherapist who handled the house lets. When Alannah mistakes Alex for Raya, Alex goes along with it, for reasons never entirely explained.

Revelations – and complications – come thick and fast. Jason turns out not to be entirely the marathon-running alpha male he seems. Alex’s marriage is not great and there are problems with her son. At times, the story seems to be heading into the supernatural realm. At others, there’s a suggestion that it’s all happening in Alex’s head, perhaps – and this is where it gets really weird – prompted by midlife hormonal change. The appearance of Jason’s daughter at the end leads to a shocking final disclosure and a last scene that is frankly bizarre.

 (Robert Day)
(Robert Day)

There’s an awkwardness to the show that goes beyond the self-consciousness of two people deciding whether or not to commit adultery. It never feels like Price and Poraj are fully, confidently in character, possibly because the motivations of Alex and Jason are so shifty and mutable. Hayes, however, gives a nicely nuanced, understated performance as a young woman constantly teetering on some sort of brink. The unforgiving oblong space of Hampstead’s studio means the characters are often bunched in the centre of Moi Tran’s deliberately sketchy set, marooned against an expanse of patchy salmon wall.

What makes the show consistently engaging are the incidental details and wry humour of Bruce’s script. “We’re giants!” says Alex, producing a minibar-sized bottle of wine and a half-laugh, unsure if the joke works. She is convinced her husband’s interest in her is waning because he’s got into “new music. [And] gifs.” Among the advice that Raya imparted to Alannah was to never end an e-mail with the words “no worries if not”. It also feels refreshing to have a woman talk frankly about the menopause on stage, albeit in a very odd context. Raya is often surprising and never not entertaining but adds up to rather less than the sum of its parts.

Until 24 July: hampsteadtheatre.com

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