ComedyDramaNorth East & YorkshireReviewSpoken Word

Clean At 17 – Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reviewer: Jonathan Cash

Writer and Director: Katie O’Brien

Working on the principle that addiction is only conquered one day at a time, Katie O’Brien is an alcoholic and a drug addict. What makes her story unusual is that she has been sober and clean since before she was legally permitted to drink, and that was 25 years ago. This one-woman show explores the depths of alcohol and drug addiction she plumbed and the degradation and mental anguish she endured before getting clean. It also details the long, or perhaps endless, road that faces anyone emerging from any form of addiction. But this is no conventional morality tale and O’Brien is no ordinary performer. She uses her considerable comedic skills to interact with the audience, even using audience members as part of her journey, and she tempers the searing honesty of her story with a large dose of humour.

The audience enters to be greeted by a 17-year-old Katie, as guests at her birthday party. Rave music is blaring out and O’Brien hands out drinks and dances like, well like a lively 17-year-old at her birthday party. Nobody is going to be allowed to sit this one out. She brings the audience very much into her world, asking questions and reacting to the answers, using them to trigger her own reminiscences and getting the party properly started. We learn that she has been drinking heavily since she was 13 and by now is using crack and other drugs on a regular basis.

Inevitably, she reaches the point where the alcohol takes over and the comedy crashes into a wall of harsh reality. The party is, both literally and figuratively, over. The contrast is brutal and there are moments that are hard to watch.

O’Brien’s mother is heard describing her constant fear that her daughter would be killed by her addiction, and we learn that she was an alcoholic herself, hospitalised when her daughter was five and still fighting the addiction to this day through the 12 Steps Programme.

O’Brien takes the audience through her endless progress via Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and many other fellowship meetings. She is clear-eyed about the pros and cons of all of these. She challenges pre-conceptions about recovery and how addicts are supposed to be defined by their addiction. Ultimately, her conclusion is that she is not so defined and she doesn’t need to follow any particular programme slavishly. She continues to need help but is selective as to where and how she takes it.

This is an intensely personal show, humorous and dramatic in equal measure. O’Brien shows extreme courage in laying the facts of her life bare, without self-pity or recriminations. She is a performer of intelligence and wit, along with great warmth that allowed her to use audience members in a way that could otherwise have engendered severe embarrassment. If the audience at times didn’t know whether to laugh or gasp with horror, perhaps that was the point. Her story is an uplifting one and the post-show Q&A made it clear that her unique view had profoundly moved and encouraged recovering addicts in the audience.

Reviewed on 12th May 2023.

The Reviews Hub Score

Funny, Painful and Inspiring

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. 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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