Jack Thorne's play opens with 17-year-old bedbound Rachel asking her boyfriend Peter to help her with the bedpan: to take her pants down, manoeuvre her body on to it and so on. When you know that she is suffering from hysterical paralysis after being raped, the scene carries an almost unbearable mix of emotions. It's both intimate and invasive; innocently banal yet freighted with the furtiveness and guilt of teen sexuality (as Peter, at a loss what to do with her knickers after removing them, pockets them and puffs on his asthma inhaler) and also with echoes of the violation she has undergone.
The same candid complexity runs through the whole play. Rachel is aware that she needs to heal: to walk again, to emerge from the confines of her bedroom (decorated, in Penelope Challen's design, both with fluff 'n' frills and with pictures of Che and John Lennon)... even just to talk about the event. Those around her are all keen to help, but unconsciously foist their own agendas on her to the point of screaming frustration. Peter is trying to do right by her, but also commandeers her tribulation as a means of bonding them, as he offers even to answer the police's questions on her behalf. Rachel's widowed mother, feeling that she has somehow been at fault, now smothers her with attention even whilst trying to be cool about letting Peter take a major role. Leggy, vapid classmate Alice finds a captive audience for her chirpy babble. Only Alice's unpleasant boyfriend James is blunt that his best mate Peter should not chain himself to Rachel. We see the young couple trying the whole time to negotiate a way together along two routes at once: both towards her recovery and just in case she does not.
Mike Bradwell's production bears the Bush stamp of naturalistic excellence. Morven Christie is magnificent, conveying the switchbacks and paradoxes of Rachel's volatile feelings whilst all but immobile; as Peter, Samuel Barnett (recently seen in almost the same school uniform in The History Boys at the National Theatre) is scarcely less fine with his array of pauses, non-looks and Ventolin shots. There is no conclusion, no resolution, nor any revelatory message to Thorne's play; it is simply (and not at all simply) a phenomenally moving portrait of all the hopes, doubts, burdens and frustrations implied in the four bare words of its title.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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