BWW Review: THE ENGAGEMENT, Bread And Roses Theatre
Alcohol is widely considered a socially acceptable norm. Most people think nothing of sinking a few pints in the pub or enjoying a glass or two of red with dinner. Perhaps if it was invented now though, there would be arguments for it to be made illegal. The amount of money spent by the NHS on treating those who over consume is frankly staggering. According to Alcohol Change UK, Britain has an estimated 586,780 dependent drinkers with less than 20% receiving treatment. There's nothing wrong with consuming a few social drinks after work, of course, but what happens when alcohol consumes your whole life?
Gerri (Lene Kqiku) and John (Jonathan Parr) hit it off during a successful date. Initially impressed with Gerri's ability to down her drinks at a rapid rate, it isn't long before the two fall in love and he proposes. After moving in with her, John grows increasingly concerned about Gerri's drinking but enveloped by denial, she continually brushes him off with flimsy excuses. When her step sister Luanne (Velenzia Spearpoint) reveals to John that Gerri is in fact an alcoholic with a serious addiction, he finally understands the gravity of the situation. As their interventions prove fruitless, Gerri spirals out of control, causing devastating ramifications for all concerned.
Mental health is finally being talked about far more openly than ever before. Sadly, alcohol abuse and addiction still carries a stigma with many people too embarrassed to admit they have a problem and are in need of help. The Engagement successfully shines a light on this disease but in a very organic way. Nothing is forced down our throats but instead we are lured in by the effective set up of two very convincing characters. We care about this couple and want them to be happy and this only emphasises the heartbreak and suffering they both experience as Gerri's drinking takes hold.
Intimacy Coordinator Roisin O'Donovan allows Gerri and John's relationship to be completely believable from the off. The actors offer assured and multi-faceted performances that do justice to the well written script. James Alexander Allen masters naturalistic writing and although the subject matter is distressing, he injects character-driven humour to provide a varied tone with some laugh out loud moments lightening the mood. At 80 minutes, the pace carries us along at a good speed while allowing appropriate pauses for us to reflect on the material.
Kqiku demonstrates strong comic timing as Gerri constantly covers up her sneaky behaviour. The actress captures all of the complexities of the character as she morphs from fun loving and seemingly happy to depressed, anxious and paranoid. It's an incredibly detailed and believable performance that's captivating to watch. Kqiku is well supported by Parr, who also successfully captures the stress, concern, panic and despair of a man who simply doesn't know how to handle the situation. It's an absorbing and authentic portrayal. Spearpoint successfully uses her body language and facial expressions to show the sheer stress she's been carrying. She comes over as tired and deflated but full of love for Gerri and a hope that she will finally recover. It's another beautifully real performance.
The majority of the action is end on with the simple set consisting of a couch and a kitchen area Gerri regularly retreats to for a top up. The audience are not all facing the stage, however. Instead Director Laura Dorn opts to have the audience scattered around the studio theatre. This allows the actors to at certain points sit or walk among us, which creates an intimate atmosphere. Being seated at various angles also allows us to observe our fellow audience members, which conjures up the idea of Gerri being judged and feeling increasingly paranoid about being held under a microscope by her loved ones. It's an artistic choice that pays off.
Dr. Emmert Roberts is an Addiction Consultant for the piece, which again allows for a truly credible and realistic depiction of the disease. The play doesn't necessarily tell us anything we don't already know about alcoholism and its impact on both the addict and their loved ones. What it does do successfully, though, is present a powerfully authentic observation of this truly awful illness. Nothing is swept under the carpet here. This is theatre at its most real and raw. It's an important piece that promises exciting futures for its cast and creative team and as with all good plays, it prompts a conversation.
Photo credit: Paul Alistair Collins