At it like Rabbits: Writer Joe Hampson on putting marital dysfunction centre stage

The stage and screenwriter reflects on what his darkly comic stage debut Rabbits exposes about the beating heart of middle class suburbia.

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Karen Ascoe (Susan) and David Schaal (Frank) starring in Rabbits. Image: David Monteith-Hodge

“The whole play came about because I thought it would be funny to see someone stamping on a box with an animal in it,” explains writer, producer and playwright Joe Hampson.

He is, just to clarify, reflecting on his stage debut Rabbits, a deliciously dark tale of middle-aged domesticity currently on stage at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, North London.

Described by critics as the “ultimate alternative rom com”, Rabbits depicts the breakdown, and ultimate redemption, of the marriage between Susan and Frank, a middle class couple riven with disturbing desires that bubble just under the surface.

These desires centre on a rabbit, specifically a rabbit in a box with a contract out on his life. The contract has been issued by David Schaal’s Frank, the hat-obsessed hapless husband to Karen Ascoe’s Susan, a repressed, papaya juice-loving legal clerk. Kevin is the chaotic and psychopathic ex-con, turned potential rabbit killer, superbly played by Alex Ferns.

The play’s central image of a man paying a criminal to murder his rabbit started life several years ago as a 10-minute sketch. Hampson has since teased out the idea into a twisted tale of relationships, love and intimacy. And as the play definitively shows, young people do not have the monopoly on exhibiting seriously questionable behaviour.

“I just think it’s more interesting and always funnier to see people in their 50s or 60s going insane and dealing with bizarre problems and getting themselves into strange, dark and excruciating situations than it is to see young people in their 20s or early 30s,” Hampson explains.

“We also see that a lot on TV and sitcoms, and it’s slightly less interesting to me than seeing people you expect to have everything sorted in their lives going off the rails.”

The first scene of the play had sat on Hampson’s shelf for several years until director and university friend Sadie Spencer heard him read an early version of Rabbits at a theatre workshop.

She was instantly struck by the darkness at the heart of Hampson’s comedy. “That darkness intrigued me. Sexual desires seem to secretly drive so many people’s decisions in life,” she explains in her director’s notes. “This play throws up a question about how far we should go in fulfilling our darkest fantasies and where to draw the line.”

Spencer liked what she heard so much she approached the Park Theatre with an outline of the script. The meeting of venue and play felt like a perfect fit. Being a relatively new theatre, slightly off the West End circuit, the Park Theatre had a fresh outlook that would welcome a quirky tale of sex and death like Rabbits to the bill.

Although they had never staged a play together before, Hampson felt he and Spencer were “sharing a brain” when it came to their creative vision.

“She was entirely in-sync with me with regards to what we wanted the play to be and what the effect of it should be. And most importantly, what the humour of the piece should be, because if that’s slightly off we might have found ourselves bickering throughout the rehearsal process,” Hampson explains.

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Image: David Monteith-Hodge

When it came to the casting, both writer and director were looking for actors with naturally “funny bones”, who could also tap into the humanity of the characters.

“They instantly got into the darkness and the cruelty, and the mundanity and stupidity of what I had written,” says Hampson. “They threw themselves in head-first and never, ever questioned our motivations for what we wanted the play to be.”

The three actors have an intimate space to work with, moving seamlessly between the three locations within the play. The staging is conveyed with minimal furniture, relying on the strength of the writing, acting and Spencer’s direction to give a sense of place.

“Sadie has an amazing ability to play Tetrus with actors in her head,” Hampson reflects. “There are points in the play where the focus is on one person in particular, but generally it goes round in circles between the three of them, because there are a few different layers of things going on.”

Comedy turns a corner

Transforming a 10-minute sketch into a 90-minute play presented a very different writing challenge for Hampson, who started his career in comedy writing on the sixth series of E4’s groundbreaking drama Skins. Soon after he quickly found his feet in radio, writing and producing sketches for BBC Radio 4’s Newsjack and The News Quiz. 

In comparison to writing for TV or radio, Hampson enjoyed the freedom the theatre offered to take his vision in whatever direction he wanted.

“When you’re working for TV you’re always answering to a producer, who’s answering to an exec, who’s answering to a commissioner and there are various different people above you who are all giving notes on things and so you have to negotiate that,” he explains.

“With TV you have to get in and out of every scene as quickly as possible, make your point, make a joke, push the story forward, stop and then you move on to the next one.”

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The papaya juice moment between David Schaal (Frank) and Alex Ferns (Andrew). Image: David Monteith-Hodge

Pausing to consider the state of comedy on British TV over the past decade, Hampson is hopeful a new wave of talent can inject some much-needed originality onto our screens. He points to the next generation of writers, directors and comedians who are breaking into the mainstream with commissions for shows on Channel 4, the BBC and Netflix.

“I think if you’d asked me five years ago I would have whined for about 10 minutes about how I wasn’t enjoying anything on British TV and the only good things that were being made were by people like Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci, who are now mostly working in the States,” says Hampson.

“These days I think, because I can see my contemporaries, friends or people whose stuff I really love or respect starting to breakthrough, I’m optimistic about the next five years for British comedy.”

“I just think it’s more interesting to see people in their 50s or 60s going insane and getting themselves into strange, dark and excruciating situations”

Joe Hampson

One such talent is actor and screenwriter Jamie Demetriou, who is about to start filming a new comedy series for E4 called Feath.

Another name to look out for is Canadian comedian and Hampson collaborator Mae Martin, who along with devising a show for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, has recently created a radio series and penned a book. Over the next couple of months Hampson and Martin will begin filming their pilot for a new Channel 4 sitcom.

“I think she’s absolutely brilliant and within the next five years she’s going to be a household name in British comedy and it’s really exciting not only to be there working with her, but also to be there as her pal seeing her on the verge of becoming huge,” he adds.

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Image: David Monteith-Hodge

The decision on whether Rabbits will tour elsewhere is dependent on the level of interest generated by its debut run at the Park Theatre, although in his characteristically self-deprecating style, Hampson is very much playing it by ear.

“I mean I’m fully expecting that after this two weeks ends people will forget it ever happened and I’ll just go back to sitting in the corner of my flat every day crying at my laptop,” he laughs.

“When something goes out, you can really easily go ‘oh great now I’m going to wait for all that cash, dollar and success to come in!’ and then it never exactly happens in the way you want it to. The best thing to do as soon as you finish something is to just be proactive and start on something brand new, so as soon as the play ends I’m going to try to do that. But I probably won’t…”

Now that really would be a shame, because if Rabbits is anything to go by Hampson’s wickedly dark comedic talent should definitely not be kept behind closed doors.

Rabbits will run at the Park Theatre until August 19

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