Blackout Songs at Hampstead Theatre review: this exploration of alcoholism is a frustrating mixed bag

Rebecca Humphries and Alex Austin in Blackout Songs  (Robert Day)
Rebecca Humphries and Alex Austin in Blackout Songs (Robert Day)

Booze is the fuel that propels and consumes a toxic romance in Joe White’s frustrating mixed bag of a play. Confusion and repetition are built into the script: the two characters are alcoholics who frequently misremember or reinvent their shared history.

Rebecca Humphries and Alex Austin flit impressively between being the needy and the dominant party, drunk or sober, as the characters’ stories slip, slide and spill. Guy Jones’s stark production is staged under striplights on a minimal set.

It could be much tighter, though. And he should definitely do away with the mortifying moments of shrieking, writhing, stylised movement between scenes. We get it: these guys are possessed by inner demons. We don’t need to see their outward expression.

White strains towards a wider point – that we can never really know another person – and he touches incisively on the way economic and erotic disparities affect a relationship. But his play is hamstrung by one basic fact. Addicts are boring because they’re really only thinking about one thing.

 (Robert Day)
(Robert Day)

These two, at least, are spryly witty, though at root they’re stereotypical tortured-artist types. He’s a skint art student living in a squat and exorcising the trauma of childhood illness and loss. She’s a poor little rich girl and would-be poet, eking out an allowance from her absentee dad in the once-Bohemian pubs within reach of her Soho bedsit. Yawn!

These seem to be their true, core identities, though their relationship is built on fantasy. They indulge in role-playing and regularly rearrange their stories or fill in forgotten blanks. Their first encounter is at an AA meeting. He has a stutter and a neck brace. Mysteriously, she has someone’s tooth in her pocket. The tooth, the brace and the stutter recur in different contexts, and there’s constant uncertainty over who said what to whom.

It’s a skillful expression of the confusion that blackout drunks might feel, and White also powerfully shows how the couple enable and sabotage each other. He’s good, too, on the love-hate relationship addicts have with their thrall, and on the realities of alcoholism: the jaundice, the jitters, the organs poisoned from within.

But there’s also a whiff of sexism to his writing. The man’s talent bears fruit: the woman’s is incidental. He’s a martyr to his alcoholism while her boozing is eroticised. She’s sexy when drunk, available. She recounts a hotel-room tryst after falling off the wagon. He, meanwhile, is briefly saved and sobered by a ‘normal’ woman.

The writing is intelligent, the performances strong. But the characters have little external life and no reliable inner existence. This makes the play suffocating. Though short, at 95 minutes it feels too long. And when we learn the names of the characters in the final scene, it’s too late to care.

Hampstead Theatre, to December 10;