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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 16th September 2006


"Envy is like farts," says Bella, the main character in Rabbit. "Everyone suffers from it. But if you let it don't smell very nice. And everyone moves away from you."

This is an observation that, at first glance, appears to be true, but on closer inspection turns out to be rubbish--which is why I have no hesitation in admitting that I envy Nina Raine, the 30-year-old author of this dazzling new play. Rabbit was first produced in a pub in Islington, just like mine and Lloyd's most recent play, but unlike ours it got rave reviews and has now transferred to the West End. Actually, though, that has very little to do with why I envy its author. The thing that really bothers me is that Rabbit is so damn good.

It isn't one play, so much as two: a light and frothy comedy about a ferociously intelligent PR girl called Bella who's convened a few of her friends at a West End bar to celebrate her 29th birthday; and a rather gloomy tragedy about the troubled relationship between Bella and her father, an academic/writer who's dying of brain cancer. The first of these plays, which feels as if it was tossed off in the course of a coke-fuelled night, is wonderfully fresh and funny, full of wit and vigour, while the second, in which the author is straining to say something profound about the human condition, is cliché-ridden and pretentious. The bad news is that Rabbit cuts back and forth between these two plays, so it's impossible to avoid all the guff about memory and personal identity and so forth. But the good news is the second play only takes up about 10% of Rabbit's two-hour running time and that's a price well worth paying.

Why is Rabbit--or, at least, 90% of it--so good? Well, to begin with, it has an outstanding cast. There isn't a weak performance on the stage, but, for my money, the stand out is Adam James as Richard, a high-flying barrister who dreams of becoming a writer. Everything about him rings true. Of course, it helps that Raine has a pitch perfect ear for idiomatic speech--but then nearly everything about Rabbit is incredibly well-observed.

One of the shortcomings of most new playwrights is that their work isn't structured properly--they've spent too long in creative writing classes and not enough time studying the craft--but Rabbit benefits from being freeform and loosey-goosey. Most of the characters assembled in the bar are strangers to one another and watching them interact has the same appeal as a reality show. We want to find out how they'll get on--who will make friends and who will fall out--and, more importantly, which of them will pair off. As with Big Brother, the situation is juiced up with plenty of alcohol and it isn't long before tempers begin to fray. Indeed, the second half begins with a screaming match, giving the impression that the characters, like the members of the audience, have been drinking heavily during the interval.

With the exception of Bella's father, all the characters are successful young professionals--they would have been described as "Yuppies" 20 years ago--yet Raine isn't out to skewer them. She hasn't chosen to write about upper-middle-class white people in order to make a point; these are just the sort of people she knows. Unlike the vast majority of new plays set in contemporary Britain, Rabbit isn't weighed down by ideological baggage--it's neither politically correct nor politically incorrect. It's mercifully free of politics altogether (unless you include sexual politics which, of course, all the characters are obsessed by).

This gets to the heart of why Rabbit is so good: Nina Raine doesn't feel obliged to dance to anyone else's tune--she's a genuinely "new" voice. There's a scene at the beginning, when Bella and Emily, a trainee doctor, are having a potty-mouthed conversation about sex and as it was unfolding I thought, "Yes! This is exactly how my friends talk." That may not sound like much of an achievement, but no other playwright--or television writer or screenwriter, for that matter--has pulled it off. The nearest anyone has come is Amy Jenkins, the creator of This Life, but she doesn't have Raine's gifts as a writer. Rabbit is like an episode of This Life written by John Osborne. Indeed, watching this play, I experienced a similar sensation to that which Kenneth Tynan described in his famous review of Look Back in Anger. For the first time in my theatre-going experience I felt as though someone was writing about my generation. I wouldn't go as far as saying I couldn't love anyone who didn't love this play, but I can't wait to see what Raine does next.

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