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Theater Review: Blackout at the Courtyard Theatre

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You are sitting in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In the intimate space of the Courtyard Theatre at King’s Cross, London, you’re not just watching, you are in the meeting.

Seven alcoholics are telling their harrowing life stories – simply, naturally, with only as much melodrama as comes naturally to their characters.

Jack (Riley Stewart), from an Irish background, comes from a family of alcoholics, his mother dying at the age of 13 left him an orphan. (Earlier, his father had drowned in a puddle while in an alcoholic stupor.) Jack drank to forget; he drank to find a family. Of course both efforts failed.

Then there’s Tim (Gary Lawrence) who cries as he talks of his family – led by his macho football coach father – refusing to accept his homosexuality; he still can’t use the word “gay”. Then his story gets even darker.

Carroll (Natalie White) is an East End girl who chased the good life, the party life, and ended up in an increasingly tawdry series of relationships. She’s still being stalked by an old lover, but is trying, she says, to learn to love herself, although she’s yet to throw off all the sexy mannerisms of her old way of life.

Debbie (Cathy Hayes), who was married for six weeks to a man known only as Wild Bob, wanted to live in the Sixties, and became a rock groupie -taking alcohol and drugs in enormous quanitities in the hope of turning herself into Janis Joplin. Now she’s turned her addictive personality to football, which is entirely consuming her weekends.

Jim (Brian Timoney – who also directs) has just lost his wife to cancer, only a few years after he got off the grog. And he’s angry at the world, angry at God, but mostly angry at himself for spoiling so many years.

Becky (Mandy Walsh) is a posh, middle-class mother whose alcoholism led her to beat her toddler. But, she says, too fast and too often, her life is perfect, just perfect, really perfect, now. And she has absolutely no, none at all, desire to drink.

Kathy (Rosie Morris) is at her first meeting, and it gradually emerges, she is homeless, pregnant, has just left her alcoholic boyfriend and utterly shaken.

That’s how the play proceeds, as a series of monologues – interaction between the characters is minimal. After a few minutes this – surprisingly – works well. It helps that Tim, the second speaker, is also the most powerful, with the least self-centred story to tell.

It works, but it doesn’t. For what we have here is half a play – a quite fine half a play, but only that.

This production is from an adaptation of Gary Lennon’s New York script, which was made in 1995 into a movie, Drunks. Here we have stories moved to Liverpool, to Gretna Green, and other British cities, with appropriate settings. All well and good.

But this is a snapshot, frozen in time. The characters tell where they’ve been, and where they hope they’re going, but we don’t see them going any further than the kettle in the corner.

Commonsense says that some of these characters will “make it” away from alcohol, and some of them won’t, but the audience has only one shot at making a judgement, no chance to watch the stories unfold before them.

Then again, since the cost is about half of the West End, getting half a play is not such a bad deal. And given all of the current debate about the licencing laws, anti-social behaviour, and the sad fate of George Best, this is topical enough.

****
A note: This is definitely fringe theatre. The seats are unusually comfortable, but wrapping up warm is definitely recommended.

The run continues until December 4.

Find more like this on my new website, My London Your London, a cultural guide to the best of the city.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.