It’s the 21st Century so women can have it all, right? Well wrong, actually, suggests Gina Gionfriddo in her gender politics drama Rapture, Blister, Burn. Don (Adam James) and Gwen (Emma Fielding) live a comfortable suburban life with their two children: they had the second, Gwen explains, instead of getting a divorce. He is a college Dean with pot and porn addictions but no ambition; she is a recovering alcoholic desperately trying to keep the family afloat. When their old grad-school friend Cathy (Emilia Fox) returns to the neighbourhood, a feminist academic in skin-tight trousers and wit as sharp as her stilettos, the couple are forced to take stock of their lives. Who really made the right choice? Is there any way to go back and live ‘the life not lived’? Is getting two books published really a greater success than potty training two sons?
The first half hour or so drags as Cathy begins to lecture a summer school class with only two students: Gwen and Gwen’s ex-babysitter Avery (Shannon Tarbet). Cathy’s mother Alice pops in with margaritas and the women settle down for a lengthy discussion which feels more like a brief history of feminism than an exciting and relevant debate. Jonathan Fensom’s beautifully designed rotating set – packed with nicely observed details and flitting seamlessly from one household to another, from starlit back yard to cosy front room – provides something of interest to look at while the three generations of women outline the views of Schlafly and Friedan in this scene stripped straight from a theory textbook. Once Gionfriddo has got all this out of the way, though, things really start to pick up and Rapture, Blister, Burn becomes the play we had all been hoping for at the beginning – a critical glance at the pleasures and pains of being a woman brimming with biting observations and a deep empathy for both the housewife and the high-flying career woman.
The bulk of the play focuses on the predictable love triangle between Don, Gwen and Cathy as they embark upon a life swap. Cathy hands over her bank account and her New York apartment to Gwen and Gwen, in return, eagerly surrenders her husband. They soon discover, though, that they’ve all changed too much to rewrite the past. Cathy begins to feel suffocated by the comfort blanket of a mediocre marriage that she yearned for, Gwen gets lonely in the city that was meant to make her feel free, and so they all come home to face the choices they made that shaped their lives so differently.
The best performances of the night come from those outside of the three-fold mid-life crisis. Shannon Tarbet is outstanding as Avery, a twenty-one year old girl whose refreshing, youthful take on the feminist debate offers more wisdom than even Cathy’s brilliant elderly mother Alice (Polly Adams, who acts the part with a terrible accent but a lot of comedy and sagacity). Avery knocks down the social constructs of love and family without batting an eyelid in a wonderfully deadpan style.
There are plenty of twists (one shocked viewer yelped an incredulous ‘What?!’ at one on press night, stopping the show as the rest of the audience howled with laughter) but the uplifting ending celebrates the possibilities that feminism fought for and continues to defend. Though it takes a while to find its feet, Rapture, Blister, Burn is worth sticking with. This anthem for the modern-day woman is full of hope and, more importantly, reassurance, making it a must-see for all women, all men with women in their lives, and anyone who has ever wondered ‘What if…?’