We never see the title character in Raya, Deborah Bruce's intriguing, beautifully acted new play that continues a strong return for the Hampstead Theatre. Hot on the heels of its vivid reclamation on the mainstage of Alfred Fagon's A Death of a Black Man, dating from 1975 at this address, comes Bruce's world premiere in the intimate Theatre Downstairs. (Socially distanced, a compact space does at least for now allow room for the audience to spread out.) The result, under the careful eye of the Hampstead's artistic director Roxana Silbert, is a tantalising portrait of damage of varying degrees as it afflicts people keen to move forward even as they keep getting pulled towards a grievous past.
Chief amongst the play's variably impassioned trio is Alex (the excellent Claire Price), who finds herself back in the company of a onetime lover from university, Jason (Bo Poraj), with whom she has been reunited at a 30th reunion. The setting is Jason's parents' former home, which he purchased from them and which is now up for sale but turns out not to be empty, as had been thought. The first of many narrative surprises is the sudden appearance of Alannah (Shannon Hayes), a onetime tenant and so-called "stowaway" who mistakes Alex for Jason's wife, Raya, a therapist with whom Alannah had struck up an email relationship online. Alannah's father, also unseen, hovers over the action, as does Alex's son, Charlie, as we gain an ever-widening view of a landscape of loss, both physical and psychic, whose scars aren't difficult to find.
Set tellingly on the autumn night on which the clocks go back, Raya has much to say about the ineluctable pull that the past can exert upon the present. (Jason himself refers to the house as "a time machine.") Alex, for starters, has vivid recall of a sexual history shared with Jason that he doesn't necessarily remember, the roll call of offstage figures leaving a mark on those onstage completed by Alex's husband: the sort of spouse said not to be able to recognise his own wife in public. "Do you ever feel like you've grown out of your own personality?" the ever self-analytical Alex asks Jason, as if to suggest that has a thing for de facto therapists, whether he realises it or not.
The onetime couple move toward and away from renewed flirtation, Alex punctuating the action with spoken musings of a decidedly violent bent: Alex speaks of wanting for herself a head-on collision and conjures images of self-immolation that make you wonder specifically what is the problem not just with her but with her clearly adored Charlie, who exists a mere late-night phone call away. "What you had is what you had; that's it," says the business-minded Jason, but the menopausal Alex clearly thinks otherwise in a play that refuses all the while to sentimentalise youth: Alannah's own, very serious abrasions cut no less deeply than the ones that have beset Alex who is more than twice her age.
The writing can be overexplicit on occasion and sometimes a tad portentous, as if Bruce were determined to signpost the psychological waystations that are arrived at by the characters in turn. But her uniformly terrific cast pull you into the shifting emotional terrain of designer Moi Tran's almost ominously spare set, which comes lit with a ghostly allure by Matt Haskins that lends a degree of visual invention to the 80-minute production (no interval). The play concludes on an image of shared buoyancy that just might signal a way forward but maybe not: as ghost stories go, a haunted mind - at least as chronicled in Raya - doesn't easily come to rest.
Raya at the Hampstead Downstairs through July 24
Photo credit: Raya (Photo by Robert Day)