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Joe White’s Blackout Songs at Hampstead Theatre

Why are tales of co-dependency so compelling? Indeed, it’s the very addictive nature of interpersonal drama that is at the heart of toxically intertwined self-destruction – with its longing for salvation from another and feelings of abject betrayal when a lover takes a different path (be it to sobriety or addiction) from whichever one the partner currently travels. Joe White’s Blackout Songs treads the same well-worn ground of artists in co-dependent relationships that is almost a subgenre in its own right. (A Star is Born, with its four filmic iterations, began in 1937 thanks to a script co-authored by none other than Dorothy Parker, and all its versions delivered box office gold for close to a century.) There’s no denying that the car crash of doomed, desperate addictive love between addicts – especially if one possesses creative talent – fascinates audiences.

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.

Within the subgenre of tragic addict romance – from Bukowski to Hemingway to Sid and Nancy – Joe White’s episodic two-hander is handily rendered. Like Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, fragmented glimpses into personal tragedy are voyeuristically compelling. Guy Jones’ direction along with Christopher Nairne’s lighting on Anisha Field’s pared-back set (which echoes a recurring and travelling AA meeting) deliver a similarly effective feel to a series of enacted tableaux. White also adds a sort of Albee/Pinteresque absurdist level of play-acting amongst the characters (a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or The Lover) to add to the disorientation and fragility of Charlie and Alice’s world (the characters only gain names in the last minutes of the play, previously being referred to only as ‘Him’ and ‘Her’).

Although pacey and visually appealing, Blackout Songs’ story is not particularly original nor adds much more to an existing subgenre. But this production is still worth checking out because the performances of Alex Austin (Him/Charlie) and Rebecca Humphries (Her/Alice) are nothing short of phenomenal. Iskandar R. Sharazuddin’s movement makes some of the interactions and scene changes almost balletic and the actors commit and deliver in every gesture – subtle or grand. Just as Goldin’s 700 slide exhibition relies on its soundtrack and juxtapositions to make it impossible to turn away, Austin and Humphries’ athleticism, emotional range and beat-for-beat precision afford us an intimate realism that is somehow simultaneously naturalistic and statuesque. Neither of these actors is a newcomer but there is a special thrill in seeing stars in their ascendency. Perhaps it is that same thrill of hope – and in the case of addiction, the anguish of relapses or demise – that does make these ballads of co-dependency such magnetic theatrical fodder?

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

“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…

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

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