DRUNKENNESS AND THE DARK
The studio at Hampstead has been on a roll recently, with intelligent and emotionally honest plays : FOLK, RAVENSCOURT, THE ANIMAL KINGDOM et al. It nurtures new playwrights, gives actors scope and challenge, invites NHS and emergency workers in for a tenner. It did not deserve to be stripped of its public funding just because someone thought Hampstead sounded, politically, a good place to kick.
This is another sharp, pared-down studio production: in 95 minutes Joe White delivers a necessarily painful two-hander about youthful alcoholism and the disaster of colliding addictions. We watch two lovers, over an uncertain wavering timeline, who can neither control nor remember their lives and real selves: we get flashes, snapshots of their meeting, coupling, celebrating, fighting, betraying.
It is cleverly constructed in its time-shifting, rather like Nick Payne’s CONSTELLATIONS (though don’t listen to me about that: I was one of the few who didn’t like its showy cleverness). But here the blackouts and timeshifts and crossed-confused memories of reality are put in the service of stark illustration of what addiction to getting off your face does to people. There are two brilliant, fiercely identified performances : Alex Austin is the more vulnerable geeky one, an art student; Rebecca Humphries, posher, entitled, swishing around in a strappy dress and afghan coat falling off one shoulder, is sexy and selfish and horribly lethal. This is apparent from the first moment when she drags him away for a drink as an AA meeting is about to start, because he’s only just thrown up his last load in a passing bin so – “It’s medicine, one in twenty people die, going cold turkey” . She also plans to have sex with him, because that is what she does when she is, as she says several times, her true self. She is the classic drunk who believes she was born three drinks under par and will only be real when she’s had them.
Their relationship is an object-lesson in AA’s advice that you shouldn’t strike up relationships in recovery, and for most of the first hour Humphries’ gives a fabulously dislikeable evocation of the poisonous self-absorption and cruelty of the career drunk. Which I have to say I found a bit of a problem: there’s a fine line between brilliantly loathsome and unwatchable. Though some critics (male) found a rom-com meet-cute sweetness in it at times, and White creates a sketchy back-story excuse about a famous father who wasn’t there for her ,and being sent to boarding school at six. He also gives her some beguiling verbal flights of fancy . That helped a bit.
Austin as the man is less toxic, eagerer, scruffily hopeless and beguiled by her, but ironically he is the one who does at some point in the switchback timeline get sober. Unless that is another fantasy. He too is the one with some understanding of love as a gift of appreciation rather than a shag-happy snatching of fun: his line about how you “carry” with you people you have loved is at the core of the play, and underlines its sorrowful message that carrying a fellow-addict is hard, perhaps impossible.
“I might love you, or maybe I’m just drunk” she observes once; and another startling moment in their courtship comes when, as they raid a church for communion-wine the man says “you know we’re just drinking buddies? I’m going to forget you”. But later he accuses her of having said that to him. Brains are damaged.
Hard, clever, truthful. And sometimes funny: there was laughing around me at times (Austin is physically good in clowning, dancing moments, and Humphries deft in the fantasy speeches). But it was the younger audience who were laughing, recognizing. Not the parent generation .
Box office Hampsteadtheatre.com. To 10 December