DramaFeaturedLondonReview

Blackout Songs – Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: Joe White

Director: Guy Jones

A young woman announces that she lives by two rules: “stay single and drink doubles”. She encapsulates key themes of Blackout Songs, Joe White’s devastating study of love and alcoholism. The woman, known simply as “Her”, bumps into “Him” at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and the play then tracks the rollercoaster ride of their relationship.

White enters the heads of his characters as they engage with each other and with the distorting force of alcohol. He takes us into a misty world of momentary bliss and faulty memory, where reality makes occasional appearances as if a grim intruder. The two people connect emotionally, drift apart, meet again having half forgotten previous encounters, reconnect and so on. It is a stuttering relationship of growing affection and mutual dependancy, matched by the couple’s joint on-off reliance on the demon drink.

He is an aspiring artist and she shows potential as a poet. The play  pulls no punches in making clear that heavy drinking leads to despair and destruction, but it also understands that it can bring temporary joy, a refuge from life’s troubles and a stimulus to artistic talents. The writer uses insight and wit to find the characters’ inner turmoil as they embrace and then repel each other, while battling to come to terms with  the lure of the bottle.

An intense two-hander such as this can only succeed if the level of the acting rises to the level of the writing. Bravely, Alex Austin and Rebecca Humphries dispense with the stereotypical outward signs of drunkenness; there is no slurred speech and no staggered walking, which could have provided cheap laughs, but would also have drawn attention away from the play’s focus on the characters’ inner experiences and emotions.

Austin resembles Rodney in Only Fools and Horses, a bemused innocent navigating his way through a dangerous terrain. Humphries exudes the false confidence of a woman who has been drinking heavily from the age of 12, hanging around male dominated bars. Together, their chemistry is spellbinding and the physicality of their performances adds a visceral dimension to White’s razor sharp dialogue.

The large, square stage is used to exciting effect in director Guy Jones’ highly animated yet still intimate production. At the end, a Champagne toast to the whole creative team feels appropriate. Well, perhaps not.

Runs until 10 December 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Devastating

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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