SUTCo’s Rabbit Hole – 30 March 2022, DINA, Sheffield

Review by Daniel O’Key.

Like the theory of unlimited universes, grief leads to unlimited and unpredictable reactions from those who suffer it. Binning belongings, nagging relatives, bar fights and nostalgic VHS tapes are just a few witnessed in Rabbit Hole. Reactions that can give way to accepting the perpetuity of loss, while finding humour, connection, and baked goods in the little moments. Running from the 30th March – 2nd April and directed by CJ Simon, Sheffield University Theatre Company gave a solid, mature rendition of an effective drama. Thanks to a Pulitzer-winning script, generally strong performances, and a stage that feels as intimate as it gets in the DINA venue.

Months after a car accident has killed their son Danny, Becca and Howie are struggling to cope, and are increasingly conflicted as they grieve. Reminders of their loss are everywhere: from Becca’s chaotic sister Izzy falling pregnant, to their mother Nat’s needling, to their son’s accidental assassin (Alex) rocking up like a ghost of suburbia’s past. Through Becca meeting these moments, Lindsay Aubraire sells the very real message that grief is forever, “something in your pocket” to “carry around” and that there is validity in different, justifiable ways of coping. The script does feel occasionally treacly (“you’re not in a better place than I am, you’re just in a different place” is a fridge magnet waiting to happen) and the theme of parallel universes is introduced too late to fully land, but they are outweighed by a study of grief that feels non-shoehorned and truly adult.

Portraying a Brooklyn-based character with 20 years more life experience is a big challenge that the cast rose to, overall. Ellie Towell captures the unseen, unending heaviness of Becca’s grief perfectly. In scenes where Becca bubbles over, where things could err on the telenovela, Towell is subtle, but the anger of her character is palpable. Her comic timing is such that even in the heftiest scenes, the audience were laughing whenever Izzy was put in her place with a one-liner. As Alex, Ella Murton is instantly likeable. It is a testament to her that we are not put off by lack of boundaries Alex initially has. We forgive Alex’s mistake as Becca does, and a scene between Murton and Towell is the most moving of the show, with natural chemistry and cry-acting that felt professional. They and the other cast members make a strong effort of the New York accent as well. There were some slips and a bit of “pahhhking the cahhh in the hahhhvahhhd yahhhd”, but they were very few and far between.

As Danny’s family never forgot his absence, the set design ensured the audience would not either. Upon being lead down a dark set of stairs to the Dina stage, the audience is struck by unworn children’s clothes littering the floor, vibrant doodles etched on the characters seats and yearly height measurements for Danny scrawled on a wall. A constant reminder he will never get higher than “4”. Sebastian Ellis, Clemence Bernard, Megan Stephens and Ollie Thompson deserve credit for their part in overseeing, designing, and constructing an impressive set that made a tiny space go a long way. Lucy Palmer found well-matched costuming for the characters, especially for Izzys free-spirited nature and Howie’s risk-management role. Nat is styled significantly younger than her daughter, Becca, which was initially surprising. But the “cool mom” look suited Nat, one of the more comic characters of the show, compared to Becca who would (understandably) not care about appearances at all. One note of critique would be the productions use of audio. Whilst Howie is watching a tape of Danny playing in the park, Danny’s voice is a little too muted and he is clearly being voiced by an adolescent woman. These niggles broke the immersion and made the sadness of the scene less impactful. The pandemic audio footage also felt slightly tacked-on compared to what had been seen before, especially considering the timing of its use.

Overall SUTCo have staged a tasteful production of a well-written and moving exploration of grief and the aftermath of tragedy, with thoughtful staging that bolsters the emotional script. Many of the performances were mature beyond the years of the actors, especially considering the themes. SUTCo have started their semester of shows strongly.

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