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Deborah Bruce’s Raya at Hampstead Theatre | Review

With superb performances and solid direction by Roxana Silbert, Deborah Bruce’s new play Raya is intriguing, but the writing feels as if it’s not quite finished. In the Hampstead Downstairs’ studio space, I had to blink a few times to check if such a laboratory stage was really showing me two thoroughly middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual, white British characters bantering in received pronunciation about marriage, property prices, and the good old days in university as they dance around the possibility of reigniting the flames of three decades ago. Was this Richard Curtis-esque set-up going to turn Fairview at some point or was this it?

Raya - Shannon Hayes - Credit Robert Day.
Raya – Shannon Hayes – Credit Robert Day.

Both Claire Price (Alex) and Bo Poraj’s (Jason) comic timing is strong enough to extract proper laughter from what initially appears to be a comely but unambitious comedy of manners. Bruce’s opening dialogue offers some crisp, tangy notes which are pleasing and relatively mild, like a decent Chablis. It doesn’t take long, however, to anticipate that we should be in for a dramatic twist rather than prolonged chatter between two former classmates paying homage to their one-time student digs (now Jason’s investment property). Indeed, something is being foreshadowed with mounting tension that might simply be the cusp of infidelity or might be something more challenging and even potentially other-worldly – all helpfully amplified by the fundamental hebbie-jebbies of an unoccupied, unfurnished house in the middle of the night.

It’s almost with a sense of relief when the first dramatic intervention arrives in the form of Allanah (Shannon Hayes). Yet the potential of a psychological adrenaline ride is often squandered by the play simply explaining the events away. Releasing the tension and accepting the laugh, the prospect of deepening entanglement between the now three present characters and a fourth off-stage spectre escapes each time it’s nearly captured.

In some parts droll and observational, in other parts humane and vulnerable, Bruce’s script almost blends into something funny and profound but ultimately it peters out before it realises the potential of the conflicts. As if she slept with the works of both Ibsen and Nora Ephron under her pillow but she couldn’t quite get them to turn up to her séance, Deborah Bruce has produced many a good line that yearns to be bound by tighter and more surprising dramatic construction. As such, there is a discordant tension between uber-naturalism and something more theatrical that remains ambivalent throughout the piece. As an 85-minute-long one-act, the play could do with deciding if it wants to be two full acts with more rise and fall either side of an interval or if it’s better served by tightening up the ride and running to something closer to an hour. Nonetheless, this is a new play, still evolving and with some intriguing themes that emerge along with oratory that manages to bite jauntily in various moments. There is enough in the story and dialogue to persevere with it as a punter, but I hope the playwright will do so too.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

It’s been years since former flames Alex and Jason last saw each other. With those carefree university days long behind them, the student reunion seems the perfect opportunity to reconnect, revive and relive their heyday.

In Deborah Bruce’s new play, Alex and Jason flirt with turning back time – even if it’s just for one night. But will the last 30 years get in the way?

Hampstead Downstairs / Celia Atkin presents
Playwright Deborah Bruce
Director Roxana Silbert
Designer Moi Tran
Lighting Designer Matt Haskins
Sound Designer & Composer Nick Powell
Associate Designer Mona Camille
Assistant Director Lucy Hayes
Cast: Shannon Hayes, Bo Poraj, Claire Price
Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London, NW3 3EU
Suggested Age Recommendation: 14+


  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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