Review: BLACKOUT SONGS, Hampstead Theatre

Joe White's new play runs until December 10

By: Nov. 12, 2022
Review: BLACKOUT SONGS, Hampstead Theatre
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Review: BLACKOUT SONGS, Hampstead Theatre When Beyonce sang "Drunk in Love" she didn't mean like this. Or maybe she did.

Award winning writer Joe White's new play is a tender study of the boundaries between desire and addiction. For two young unnamed alcoholics (played by Rebecca Humphries and Alex Austin) that boundary becomes increasingly blurred across their highs of alcohol-soaked nights out and lows of hospital visits.

The A - word is never mentioned but Blackout Songs is soon haunted by it. The two meet at an AA meeting and despite their blossoming romance cannot separate themselves nor their relationship from booze. White tackles boldly weighty themes, but his touch is light and crisp. His writing is layered with wit and irreverent humour whilst buttressed with searing curiosity and immense compassion.

There is something profoundly contemporary about the struggle. Above all else the alcoholics are nihilists, struggling to cope in a world without a larger idea to live for and anchor them. One poignant scene sees them break into a church to raid the stocks of Communion wine; it's more than just another drink, it's an expression of their post-modern malaise and inability to live beyond the present moment.

But it goes both ways, not just forward in accepting the opportunity cost of tomorrow's hangover for today's happiness, but also backwards in memory. The two alcoholics drink to the point where they cannot remember where they have been or more lamentably who said what. In drinking to forget their lives, they forget to live.

Both performers galvanise White's script with electricity. Rebecca Humphries' character is the sun in the centre of Austin's character's universe; he is a planet caught in the orbit of her charm. She swans and swaggers with a rockstar's brash flare. Richard E. Grant's Withnail's female counterpart. Her puppy dog eyes beg Austin's character for "Just one more sip". But the flirting turns sour when all romantic artifice is shed, and the reality of their parasitic addiction is brought into the light.

Alex Austin bounces off Humphries' energy and together their luminous playfulness is as adorable as it is magnetic to watch. Whilst oafish and juvenile, he also incubates a silent tragedy in his core as a quintessential struggling artist trying to channel his emotions into his art. There is a question about art and masochism, the myth of the suffering artist contextualised in the 21st century, but White doesn't reveal his cards. He keeps the audience on their toes.

The production moves with kinetic fluidity thanks to Guy Jones' rapid but self-assured direction. Static interchanges are broken apart by movement as a result of director Iskander R. Sharazuddin's physical theatre cum interpretive dance sequences. The sequences can be on the nose in terms of emotions, a lot of shouty fist pounding, but they maintain a welcome dynamic pace.

Blackout Songs will no doubt cement Joe White's status as a one to watch despite this only being his second full length play. This critic cannot wait see what he does next.

Blackout Songs plays at Hampstead Theatre until December 10

Photo Credit: Robert Day


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