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‘Blackout Songs’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
Blackout Songs, Hampstead Theatre, 2022
Photo by Robert Day
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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Joe White’s drama about an alcoholic couple spiralling out of control is best at its bleakest and weirdest

Joe White’s intriguing new play is basically a romcom... but a messy one, a pissed-up one, one whose protagonists’ memories are blurred by days and nights of blackout drinking. Named only ‘him’ and ‘her’, their meet-cute happens outside an AA meeting. He’s shaking (from alcohol withdrawal, not romantic nerves) so she whisks him off for a medicinal drink. Delirium tremens can be fatal, she tells him.

But failing to quit can be fatal, too. Their downward slide starts as a kind of addled oddball romance between a broke art student and his troubled older lover: he steals a priest’s communion wine for her, and together they smash the window of his art school so they can break in and admire his paintings. Then things get infinitely bleaker, as he gets sick and they try to go dry, together, as a broken health system only intermittently gives them the support they need.

Alex Austin is fascinating to watch as ‘him’: he starts out monosyllabic, struggling to squeeze his words out like he’s wringing toothpaste from a nearly-empty tube. But as alcohol starts to pump through his veins again, he’s charismatic and wild, more than a match for Rebecca Humphries’s livewire barfly ‘her’. She‘s written as a kind of booze-pickled manic pixie drunk girl: she attempts Dorothy Parker-esque witticisms, and talks about alcohol in allusive terms, calling it ‘medicine’, or a ‘river’ that fills her up, then bloats her. There’s a bonkers, wonderful scene where she imagines herself as a plague-sore-covered peasant, infecting her lover with her sickness in one ecstatic tryst. But this moment aside, what she doesn't quite have is a convincing inner life, shaped by regret or remorse about the way she's dragged her younger lover down with her. Surely even the most delusional boozehounds have moments of brutal 3am clarity?

But instead of starkness, ‘Blackout Songs’ is a play that increasingly delights in ambiguity: the same incidents recur in different forms, rippling through their liquifying memories. Is it her that steals the flowers from another grave, or him? Where did the tooth in her pocket come from? Guy Jones’s slickly modern production shapes a stage that feels half like a church hall, and half like the inside of someone's head: set designer Anisha Fields and lighting designer Christopher Nairne illuminate its upper reaches with synapse-like strips of neon.

White’s games with memory and perception are the most exciting thing about this play, so it’s a shame that he ultimately abandons them in favour of a more straightforwardly tragic ending, one that this play's 95-minute running time takes a little too long to arrive at. Still, it's an intriguing follow-up to his breakout ‘Mayfly’, and a crushing reminder of the ugliness that follows a love affair with booze. 

Written by
Alice Saville

Details

Address:
Price:
£10-£20. Runs 1hr 30min
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