Theatre review - Blackout Songs

JOE White’s sobering study of two alcoholics follows their inevitable destructive spiral. The couple meet at AA, become drinking buddies, fall in love, begin a relationship but cannot escape the cycle of addictive behaviour in which they are ensnared.

When they first encounter each other, he’s at art school and living in a squat. We never find out what she does for money, although she professes to be an aspiring poet. Her father – also an alcoholic – appears to fund her excesses. She’s charming, enjoys role-playing, and is  desperate to escape herself. He is bewitched by her energy and intelligence.

They live a chaotic existence, as they attempt to give up their alcohol dependency, and repeatedly fail. He is desperate to be loved, she cannot express her feelings. Eventually he leaves, becomes sober and a successful artist.

Until they meet years later at the opening of his art exhibition. And the cycle begins again.

Guy Jones’ electrifying production is played out on a bare stage – chairs are occasionally moved around to give the sense of an AA meeting or are thrown about the room to represent the fallout after the pair’s latest binge. Christopher Nairne’s strip lighting helps convey their chemistry and compulsive behaviour when drunk.

Alex Austin and Rebecca Humphries are superb. Humphries captures her character’s fragile ego, while full of wisecracks and witty put-me-downs. Austin’s character is less sure of himself, damaged in a different way. They both suffer from alcoholic blackouts, forget what each has said, correct each other’s memories. She is quick to hurt him and adept at protecting herself.

White only gives us hints of their past lives and what drives their destructive behaviour (we don’t know their names until the final scene) but captures a vivid sense of the repetitive nature of addiction without boring his audience.

I’d have liked more psychological complexity, and 100 minutes felt a tad long, but this is another hit for Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Originally published by Camden New Journal

Until December 10