Pros: The ultimate alternative rom-com, in a tidy 90 minutes, with imaginative set design and scenery transitions.
Cons: Can be cringe-inducing in places (but not enough to detract from the appeal). Rabbits is all about the dangers of taking people and situations at face value, and deciding what can be labelled ‘normal’ or ‘weird’. One look at the play’s eye-catching but slightly disturbing poster – a bloodied baseball bat dangling precariously over a photogenic pet rabbit – throws up all kinds of doom-laden connotations, mostly on the spectrum of weird, but it doesn’t betray the multi-layered comedy that’s in store.
Joe Hampson, making his playwriting debut, clearly has a knack for this kind of thing. You might know him as a TV and radio comedy writer, but Rabbits suggests stage drama might be his best format yet. What seems like a simple domestic farce – a middle-aged, married couple not communicating properly – has much more going on. Hat-collecting bore Frank, one half of the couple, wants to bump off the unwanted pet rabbit that his wife, Susan, bought him (you can see his point. The rabbit is called Christopher St Tubbins, for Christ’s sake). Animal antics aside, their seemingly rocky relationship obviously has some benefits, as a therapist later points out, but domestic bliss comes in many forms. Even the seemingly serious moments have punchlines, so there’s never a dull moment.
David Schaal (a.k.a. Jay’s dad from The Inbetweeners) plays Frank, whose resentment boils over in an entertaining tongue-in-cheek Incredible Hulk fight scene. Meanwhile, Karen Ascoe nails the ever-increasing bossiness of his wife, Susan (‘You weren’t answering your phone. That’s not allowed…’), whose uptight behaviour gives way to something quite unexpected. The gradual and often cringe-inducing reveal of Frank and Susan’s true desires is so cleverly plotted within the play, that it’s essential you don’t read spoilers beforehand. This keeps the shock value high, and the one-liners even funnier.
I’ll admit to mentally typecasting the remaining actor before the play started. For me, and many other soap fans, it seemed Alex Ferns would always be ‘Trevor from EastEnders’: a snarling domestic abuser. It was a prize role for an actor, but one so memorable that Ferns still gets asked about it fifteen years later. Playing three distinctive supporting characters in Rabbits (a psychopath, a therapist, and a friend of the couple), Ferns well and truly exorcises the ghost of Trevor: firstly, as eccentric Glaswegian odd job man Kevin, who is hired by Frank. Rabbits has many running jokes, from ordering papaya juice to cultivating yogurt, but one of the best involves Kevin’s confusion between rabbits and snakes.
The transition between playing Kevin, all stained underpants and proud beer belly, and Andrew, an upper-class therapist, happens on stage. Andrew’s costume appears from the wreckage of Kevin’s flat: his linen clothing had been hiding on the desk; his sensible shoes are lowered down from the ceiling, along with quirky scenery elements, like trendy pot plants in macramé pot holders. All three actors move furniture between these scenes, their movements coordinated to the drumbeats of the background music. Sadie Spencer, directing, clearly had fun bringing this play to life and making it work in the Park90 space.
Rabbits proves there really is a whole other world behind closed doors, and nothing should be judged on its public façade. In reality, there’s no such thing as a ‘normal’ hobby, desire or relationship, and the awkward lengths we go to conceal them will always lead to black comedy. Welcome to the new normal.
Author: Joe Hampson
Director: Sadie Spencer
Producer: Celia Dugua
Box Office: 020 7870 6876
Booking Link: https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/rabbits
Booking Until: 19 August 2017