Monday, 21 November 2022

Theatre review: Blackout Songs

Joe White's Blackout Songs is an alcoholic love story, which Guy Jones' production plays as a kind of twisted rom-com: Anisha Fields' traverse set design is bordered by rows of chairs that call to mind AA (Alcoholics Anonymous, not the Automobile Association.) That's because an AA meeting is where the protagonists meet, but it soon becomes apparent they're not ready to commit to sobriety: Rebecca Humphries' Alice and Alex Austin's Charlie (the characters are listed as just "Her" and "Him" in the programme) both claim this is their first-ever AA meeting, and they don't even stay past the coffee: When she finds out he's going cold turkey, Alice tells Charlie that has a one-in-twenty fatality rate, and they should go out and get him one last drink to save his life.

That statistic, the idea of "one last drink," and the belief that you can microdose vodka as a quitting technique, are things that follow them through a number of years and several relapses.

Their story roughly follows them having a relationship defined by dramatic adventures in search of booze, with us always seeing them just before they get drunk or just after they've sobered up. Charlie eventually moves on for the sake of his health, but after sobering up and finding some commercial success as an artist Alice finds him again and he falls off the wagon, spiralling further than ever. I say "roughly follows" because initially at least the sequence of scenes doesn't entirely stack up - little details about their meetings happen out of order, and they confuse each other with other people.

It soon becomes apparent we're seeing these scenes through the filter of one or the other's memory, which can be deceptive over what happened when. Memories as a way of holding onto someone are a recurring theme of White's play; add the blackouts of the title and there's a real haze around what really happened. Details repeat in different ways - did he give her flowers stolen from a grave, or did she give them to him? The story of them stealing communion wine from a church might not even be their own anecdote, but one recounted about her father at his funeral.

Despite all this the overall effect isn't one of confusion but of an energetic tragicomedy, with the chemistry between Austin and Humphries keeping this an evening with a lot of vibrant humour despite the underlying downward spiral. I could have done with a bit more of a hint of who Alice is outside of her alcoholism - with Charlie we get his attempts to make it as an artist but with her she has some emotional damage from an absent father and, I guess, is independently wealthy because she pays for everything but doesn't have a job? Also the attempts to question the "tortured artist" trope actually end up becoming the trope itself: Charlie might only find success when he's sober, but he can only actually paint anything worthwhile when he's drinking. But overall this is a success, a dark subject dealt with sympathetically but with energy and humour to keep the audience hooked throughout*.

Blackout Songs by Joe White is booking until the 10th of December at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Robert Day.

*I mean, not the two women in the front row opposite us who fell asleep as soon as the lights went down and barely jerked awake for the whole 90 minutes. But the rest of the audience seemed to be enjoying it.

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