Can we have it all?

Before watching Rapture, Blister, Burn, I had never heard of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, or the Equal Rights Amendment she opposed – a hugely controversial US amendment debated during the 1970s and 1980s which asked that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex”. The ERA was never passed. Gina Gionfriddo’s script offers a witty and engaging whistle-stop tour of second-wave feminist history in the US, whilst highlighting some major points of conflict and contention for modern feminists. This heavy and demanding subject is pulled off with a deft touch and a sense of humour.

The piece opens in a New England suburban town, complete with picket fences and backyard barbeques. We witness the uncomfortable reunion of three university friends – the sharp and sexy Catherine (Emilia Fox), who is now a renowned scholar of feminism and pornography dubbed “the hot Doomsday chick”, the worn-down Gwen (Emma Fielding), who exchanged intellectual stimulation for a husband and kids, and the hapless, useless Don (Adam James), Catherine’s ex-boyfriend ‘stolen’ by Gwen, who is now married to him. Gionfriddo’s script centres around the much-debated premise of ‘having it all’: Gwen resents Catherine’s freedom, success and ambition, while Catherine fears she will end up alone, without home or family after her beloved mother (Polly Adams) dies. This leads to an inevitable – and unsuccessful – life swap, but before this we are treated to a series of seminars on feminist history as Gwen and her ex-babysitter, Avery (Shannon Tarbet), undertake Catherine’s summer school programme.

As the ambitious and unapologetically intellectual Catherine, Emilia Fox shines. Her performance is nuanced, sympathetic and infinitely complex, refreshingly flawed in her relationship with Don and believably conflicted in her sudden doubt over her life choices. As Catherine and Don, Fox and Adam James have simmering chemistry. In their beautifully revealing backyard rendezvous, James sparks with the wit, charisma and intelligence that allow an audience to believe in Catherine’s nostalgic love for the man he once was. The childish exuberance that exudes from their restored relationship is absorbing, underlining the dangerous temptations of this ultimately unhealthy regression. Remarkably, James manages to imbue Don, the perennial disappointment, with an irresistible charm that awakens the instinct in both Gwen and Cathy to help him live up to his potential.

Alice’s inclusion in the seminar scenes adds a wonderfully balanced cross-generational discussion of what it means to be a woman in different times

Emma Fielding is equally engaging as the care-worn, frustrated Gwen, aware of her husband’s many failings – porn and pot, to name but two – and too tired to continue fighting them. The moment of reconciliation between Gwen and Don is beautifully portrayed by Fielding. This is hilariously undercut by an immersed audience member’s audible disbelief that Don wants his old life back, in preference to watching porn and drinking beer with a lingerie-clad Catherine. Polly Adams, as Catherine’s shrewd mother, Alice, is directed with razor-sharp comic timing. While some of her jokes err on the side of the predictable, they are delivered with good humour and warmth, and her contributions to the summer school seminars Catherine runs for Gwen and Avery add a wonderfully balanced cross-generational discussion of what it means to be a woman in different times.

Although all the acting is witty and sensitive, Shannon Tarbet is the star of the show. As 21-year-old Avery – the babysitter of Gwen and Don’s children before becoming Catherine’s pupil and Gwen’s classmate – it is incredibly refreshing to see a three-dimensional portrayal of a bright, determined and sexually open young woman that doesn’t patronise or ridicule. However, I fear she is made to look a little too young, risking transforming her smart and opinionated dialogue into the realm of the stroppy teenager. Tarbet’s dead-pan delivery is sharp and funny, with just the right amount of feeling, empathising with women who were not permitted the same freedoms as her, whilst able to communicate some of the problems of feminism today. Most telling is that she opens her introduction by refusing to identify with the label feminist, despite clearly holding close the same values and beliefs as Catherine. She also voices a modern dilemma of the sexually liberated woman, unable to reconcile the immediacies of sex with the long-term desire for a relationship: “Why would they punish us for giving them what they want?”

There are many bleak moments in the piece, particularly the tendency to undervalue and underestimate men – their inability to stay with a woman who offers sex too quickly and the depressing success of Avery’s experiment with Phyllis Schlafly’s theory that women feigning weakness keep the attention of men for longer. However, it is refreshing, after years of lazy jokes about men never understanding what women want, to have this turned on its head when Catherine discovers that Don found her both too lax and too pushy and wants to return to Gwen, lamenting that she gave him what he said he wanted.

There remains Catherine’s crushing and understandable fear that her choice not to have a family is somehow a failure

The topic of pornography is tackled bravely, initially introduced during one of Catherine’s seminars as a notoriously divisive topic among the feminist movement. Catherine’s academic discussion of how latent sexual fantasies do not represent literal desires offers an open and liberating view on difficult and controversial subjects like rape porn, whilst the relationship between Gwen and Don touches on the damage of porn addiction. There is a refreshing refusal to pass judgement, but a seeming avoidance of the issues concerning how readily available pornographic images are, and the effect of such normalisation, that underlie modern controversies like No More Page 3 and David Cameron’s porn filters.

Gionfriddo’s script explores a number of important themes in depth, but it occasionally suffers from attempting to tackle too much. Gwen’s character occasionally slips into a cliché of right wing politics, launching into a strange diatribe against foreigners, and vaguely touching on a pro-Vietnam War stance in opposition to Catherine. These controversial topics are mentioned and immediately dropped, which can be off-putting for an audience. For the most part, however, the dialogue is funny and moving, tapping into a lot of very real fears about what it means to be alone and the difficulty of living up to your own impossible expectations. I would have liked some of the emotional moments to be drawn out in order to provide more of a contrast to the otherwise quick and witty script. This balance is achieved perfectly at the close of the first half, which closes with Catherine refusing an advance from Don with a moral chastity that is immediately undercut by their mutual realisation that she is performing a part of the woman resisting temptation, in an attempt to avoid blame or responsibility for her decisions and desires. This moment of tension is honest, exciting and truly representative of the complex roles women have to navigate.

Despite its moments of tragedy, Rapture, Blister, Burn is alive with humour, energy and sexuality and Gionfriddo’s script is a fast-paced, good-humoured journey through paths of feminist history where Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir are sidelined in favour of Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly. Despite being restricted to the all-too-familiar cohort of white, middle class, heterosexual women, Catherine, Gwen, Alice and Avery succeed in showing that feminism can still mean different things to different people. This piece revels in the opportunities offered by feminism for personal freedom and intellectual debate, and puts to bed a number of age-old clichés – these are bright, funny, passionate and interesting women, who like sex, like men, and are dealing with the same complexities and difficulties of what it means to be woman.

Rapture, Blister, Burn is playing at the Hampstead Theatre until 22 February, 2014.

Photos are © Alastair Muir.

Photo 1: Gwen and Catherine sit together at a table outside. Gwen holds a bottle of water; Catherine holds a bottle of beer.

Photo 2: Three women from three generations clink together glasses in a living room.

Photo 3: Catherine stands by a chair, talking to a group of three other women of varying ages who are sitting in a living room scene.

As a 21-year-old female student, Imogen is eternally grateful to Gina Gionfriddo and Shannon Tarbet for writing and playing a 21-year-old female student as strong, smart and ambitious, not silly, stroppy or vulnerable