Guest reviewer: Ellen Casey
Rattled is a window into a woman unravelling. Em is standing alone (or so she thinks) on a train platform. How she got there – and what she intends to do now that she is – is never revealed to us, but whatever it was, it is interrupted in the strangest way; she finds a baby. This is the device that lends the play much of its exposition as Em jerkily narrates her life story to the mysterious infant. Topics wind their way from the parenting habits of orangutans to Kate Bush, but they all somehow stitch their way into the tapestry of Em’s mental breakdown.
Something that always impresses me is when a play manages to get the line between tragedy and comedy exactly right; Rattled is disturbing and gripping, but it’s also very, very funny. Rachel Harper has a natural sense of comic timing (highlights include a vigorous Wuthering Heights dance routine and referring to her husband as the “Nokia 32-10 of men”) which makes her character all the more realistic and likeable. There’s drama here, but no melodrama – just because someone is suffering from a mental illness, doesn’t mean that becomes the only thing they are. They can be funny and witty, and absolutely nail the window scene from Kate Bush’s music video.
Having only one performer on stage is always intense; a lot rides on the charismatic performance of just one personality. Luckily Harper is spellbinding to watch, leaping from character to character (drunk lad on the Tube – new mother cooing over a newborn – pushy mother-in-law) with ease. It’s really impressive how she inhabits each new face, from mannerisms to accent, and the gambit serves well to break up the concentrated emotion that inhabits much of the play.
The Old Red Lion is a great theatre, but it is limited in space, so it’s always interesting to me how performers choose to use that space. In Rattled’s case the staging consists of one green bench and a baby carrier – however, that green bench becomes a bed, a rabbit pen, the front of a classroom, mainly down to the efforts of Harper. She crawls, climbs over, and even dry humps to convey a mood, or prove her point. Particularly impressive is the intro; a single light flickers as Harper jerks her way around the stage, essentially becoming her own strobe effect. It’s all detail that builds an atmosphere, and it’s done with respect to the space that’s afforded to them.
It was very apparent to me that this play was written by women. I say this because I have watched a lot of plays, with a lot of female characters, and many of them were written by men. There was nothing wrong with those characters necessarily; but it is really refreshing to see a character done so authentically – there’s even a little tongue-in-cheek nod to these (usually fairly superficial) descriptions of women by male writers that made me laugh. The feeling of discomfort that permeates the play is expressed really well, and the point of view is so straightforwardly feminine; the need to appease, or suppress uncomfortable emotion is brought up a few times in a few different situations, and you could feel it connecting, hard, with the women in the room.
I really enjoyed every minute of Rattled – however, though I could have definitely watched more, I was very surprised when the lights came up. This is partially a compliment – I didn’t realise it had been an hour – but it’s also a small indictment of the fizzling out quality of the ending. The first three-quarters of the play do an excellent job building tension and telling a story, but it never really goes anywhere. It’s not a totally terrible thing – sometimes feeling like you’ve been given a snapshot into someone’s life can be even more affecting – but it does dissipate the tension that’s been so carefully cultivated somewhat.
My verdict? Hilarious and heartbreaking – an essential piece of theatre done stunningly well.
Rattled runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 2 March 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.