After a sold-out run last year in Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs space, critical acclaim, plus an Olivier nomination, Blackout Songs is back, this time in the venue’s main house.

© The Other Richard

Joe White’s play centres around the duo of Him (Alex Austin) and Her (Rebecca Humphries) as they battle their addictions to alcohol together, after meeting at an AA group. The relationship between the two of them begins as two drinking buddies having fun together, but the true extent of their issues becomes apparent very soon, with neither being able to remember much from one day to the next, this soon creates a dysfunctional, co-dependent dynamic between them.

The stage is placed further out into the auditorium with audience members sitting on either side, not quite in the round but almost. The staging is minimal, with just a few chairs scattered around the stage, but Anisha Fields’ set has tricks hidden within it, from a revolve to doors at either end which push out, to reveal Christopher Nairne’s stark sobering lighting at the play’s climax. The lighting design elevates this show, and it is no wonder Nairne’s designs received an Offie nomination last year, from colourful party lights, to brightly lit moments which utilise the house lights to signify a wake-up call for one of the characters – his designs tell the story fluently.

The pacing of Guys Jones’ production begins rather frantically, with the show progressing in a sort of frenzy. At first, the transitions between scenes feel slighting jarring and take some getting used to, however, they portray the two characters’ reality, their chaotic lifestyle and loss of control around their drinking. The use of movement, by Iskandar R. Sharazuddin, to progress the show allows messages to be conveyed without the need for words and is hypnotic to witness.

© The Other Richard

Austin morphs in and out, from drunk, to injured, to sober, spectacularly portraying how recovery is not linear, just like the plot of this play. Humphries shines, full of sarcasm, jovial, and often trying to hide her problems, instead just wanting to have fun. I feel more depth within these characters would have improved the play, and the audience’s connections to them. We never really find out much about either of them, just that they appear to be struggling artists and struggling with alcohol; this somewhat impairs the emotional impacts of the show.

The play rings true of being blackout drunk, leaving just fragments of memory and nothing to join them together with. We never really know if these are their real memories of the other or pieces of past events completely unrelated to the other, as neither of the two is sober for long enough to work this out.

Although I understand the rationale behind these creative choices – to show the world the duo lives in, without routine or anyone else to lean on, descending into chaos, I do feel this could be better portrayed on stage, so the audience is not lost along the way. It feels as though we are disoriented at times trying to follow along.

But Blackout Songs contains some honest, realistic performances and some inventive lighting which elevates the storytelling; with some further fine-tuning of the script, this could be a work of art.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Blackout Songs is on at Hampstead Theatre until the 6th of May (Hampstead offer discounts to those Under 30, Students, NHS Workers and Seniors) – Find out more info and buy tickets here.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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