BLACKOUT SONGS at the Hampstead Theatre
“the ending is strong enough that the audience’s slight loss of attention is whipped back into submission”
Alice and Charlie have both found themselves at their first AA meeting. Lingering by the coffee table, avoiding taking their seats, Alice persuades Charlie that he needs a drink for medicinal purposes, and off they run. This is the beginning of a tumultuous, toxic, hopelessly sincere love story. Or at least, that’s how one of them remembers it.
Scenes are presented as fact, later disputed or questioned, with no resolution; specific details and conversations repeat themselves in various parts of the story, and the audience experiences the desperate, failing attempt to recall things as they happened. It reminds me of Florian Zeller’s The Father, where we experience dementia first-hand, except in this case, neither witness is reliable, nor does it really matter. The fact is they love each other.
Anisha Fields’ design appears, at first, almost non-existent: stackable chairs line two sides of the stage, and that’s about it. It’s possible that’s just how the auditorium looked pre-rehearsals. After a while, though, despite their avoidance of AA, the chairs seem to suggest that the whole play is taking place at a meeting, someone trying to set the record straight, finally. Alice is dressed like Penny Lane from Almost Famous, in a fitted Afghan coat, large sunglasses, and a little slip dress. The comparison is perfect: Alice has performed as herself for so long she’s become the performance, and what appears false initially is actually just who she is now. She seems so ridiculous on first meeting that I’m worried Rebecca Humphries just isn’t very good, or the script has let her down. But the opposite is true: her façade is ridiculous, but her insecurities bubble just under the surface.
Alex Austin’s Charlie is scrappy and dopey and his near lack of costume- baggy top and jeans- reflects that. He’s the antithesis of Alice, always himself, always honest about how he feels. Austin appears as a nervous puppy, so ready to be loved, and it’s completely endearing and, ultimately, heart breaking.
Sound designer Holly Khan and lighting designer Christopher Nairne do a lot of the heavy lifting: masses of reverb when they’re in a church, a thudding heartbeat timed so perfectly with the on-stage tension, you can’t recall when it started; sickly florescent tubes double as unflattering lighting at the AA meeting, and artful strobes, denoting the strange experience of time, and the eponymous blackouts.
There is no dead space in this script, but writer Joe White does have a problem on his hands. Because despite the fact that there are no scenes to cut, it’s too long. Ultimately it doesn’t matter; the ending is strong enough that the audience’s slight loss of attention is whipped back into submission. But the script is so nearly perfect, it’s a shame it’s not ever so slightly pacier.
Reviewed on 10th November 2022
by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Robert Day
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Reviewed – 15th October 2021
“Crane rules the roost, a joyously commanding performance, scarily swinging between sympathy and oppression”
A decade ago, Greenpeace International added yellowfin tuna to its seafood red list. Although not yet extinct their population, through unsustainable fishing methods, is dangerously depleted. In a global context this imbalance in nature helps destroy the human ecosystem. Take the concept a few steps further and the effects are catastrophic. Marek Horn’s new play delves into a (not too distant) future when not only the Yellowfin have disappeared, but also all of the world’s fish. And much of the world’s population. England is under water; drowning the English. Nonetheless, Horn’s outlandish dystopian satire brushes that minor inconvenience aside to focus on the piscatorial annihilation. There were fish. And then there weren’t fish. Simple as that.
Well. Not quite. A man called Calantini (Joshua James) is being questioned by three senators in a committee room on Capitol Hill. Calantini swears he abandoned the black-market years ago. His interrogators aren’t so sure. We are in Kafka territory, with more humour. The dialogue is playful and deliberately obscure. A Russian contamination conspiracy is thrown into the mix. Catalina’s complicity is thrown into question. There’s no proof of his innocence or guilt except for the loaded preconceptions of the cross-examiners. Part documentary, part courtroom drama and part absurdism, the piece invites us also to playfully question the power of the decision makers of the world.
The term ‘post-truth’ is resonant throughout. The characters brandish their words to create their own reality. There is an Orwellian tendency to refashion past events. It can be frightening but the cast’s understanding of the comedic value lightens the mood. Yet at the same time the fun they have with it paradoxically darkens the situation, intensifying its relevance.
Nancy Crane is Marianne, the Senator, full of authoritative disdain – not just for James’ Calantini but for the ‘Other’ Senators on the bench. Crane rules the roost, a joyously commanding performance, scarily swinging between sympathy and oppression. To her left is Nicholas Day as Roy, the elder statesman whose wisdom seems to have disappeared with the fish, replaced with a bumbling benevolence and some hilarious non-sequiturs. Beruce Khan’s Stephen is ambitious and officious but no match for Marianne. The trio embody an audacious caricature of the Senate while James’ character mockingly toys with their tenuous power.
Anisha Fields’ simple but austere set frames the action, the flags and Seals of Office serves to add gravity to the absurdity. And there is a seriousness to Horn’s writing that surfaces. A social commentary that swims alongside the skit. It is innovative, sometimes sketchy and sometimes drawn out, with touches of Ionesco too. It is a refreshing take on the world we live in, but occasionally feels as though it is taking on too much without fully resolving anything in particular. Climate change, fake news, Senate hearings, influencing, manipulation, are all undercurrents – threatening to pull us under instead of allowing us to tread water in the entertainment of the performances. And there’s nothing fishy about the fact that this is a hugely entertaining and engrossing show. A real catch.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Helen Maybanks
Southwark Playhouse until 6th November
Other shows reviewed this month so far: