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: