Joe White’s Blackout Songs at Hampstead Theatre

This new 90-minute play by Joe White makes for some uncomfortable viewing! Both of the protagonists are alcoholics, though we are not told why, but perhaps that is too simplistic in the scope of the play. Their persistent drinking leads to blackouts of time and memory and they live on a blend of real and false memories, finding it impossible to know what is true and what has been invented to keep them ‘sane’. Both, therefore, suffer from alcohol-related dementia, and are also in love!

Alex Austin & Rebecca Humphries in Blackout Songs at Hampstead Theatre . Credit Robert Day.
Alex Austin & Rebecca Humphries in Blackout Songs at Hampstead Theatre. Credit Robert Day.

At first, the play seems confusing, requiring the audience to have to work to piece the narrative together, but White is clever in occasionally providing what he calls ‘tent poles’ at specific moments to guide them.

The cast of two more than do the playwright justice, having terrific rapport and chemistry with each other and being totally believable.

Rebecca Humphries is ‘Her’. She is a very physical actor, using her hands very expressively to express emotion and her face is eminently watchable. Her failure at being able to stop her dependency on alcohol is heartbreaking as is her desperate love for ‘Him’ when she realises how much she hurts him by her actions, but cannot stop herself.

‘Him’ is Alex Austin, another superb performance, especially in the opening scenes where he is a stammering wreck of a human being. He is a painter and, unfortunately, does his best work when he is fuelled by alcohol. We are allowed to see his tragic descent and know how it will end, wondering why he is unable to stop, but in the end, just being able to observe.

Finely detailed direction is in the exceedingly capable hands of Guy Jones who, like the two actors, succeeds in making this play seem better than perhaps it really is. He gets an intensity of emotion throughout almost all of the play, only slightly failing at the end which perhaps needs a rewrite – it almost seems too tame, too obvious, but then that’s what tragedy is.

Simple yet effective design is by Anisha Fields, allowing the actors to inventively use all the space and imaginative yet subtle lighting is by Christopher Nairne, with sound by Holly Khan.

Not an easy watch – one leaves the theatre feeling drained – but a production that demands to be seen, if only for the magnificent, powerful, performances.

4 Stars

Review by John Groves

“You told me you loved me, once. You said you carried me. You remember that? You still carry me? Or did you drop me, somewhere along the line?”

A chance encounter at an AA meeting results in a crazy passionate bond… But later, once they’re drinking again, they both have this feeling that they might have been here before, together… They should really get sober and figure it out. Maybe after one last quick drink…

LISTINGS
WORLD PREMIERE
BLACKOUT SONGS
By Joe White
Directed by Guy Jones
Designer Anisha Fields
Lighting Designer Christopher Nairne
Sound Designer Holly Khan
Movement Director Iskandar R. Sharazuddin
Cast Alex Austin, Rebecca Humphries

Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 3EU
Dates: Friday 4 November – Saturday 10 December 2022
https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/