REVIEW: Blackout Songs by Joe White – Red Stitch

They meet, perhaps for the first time, at Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s wearing a neck brace. Shaking. Clammy hands. She’s dressed like she’s on her way home from a night out. Someone has brought her here and is waiting at the pub across the road to make sure she stays? To be there for her after?

Neither of them want to be there. They can’t admit they have a problem. They don’t really want to talk in front of strangers. They think they could probably handle one drink, just to calm themselves down. A little medicinal drink to straighten them out.

A while later, they meet again. She doesn’t remember him. Because she doesn’t remember him, he starts to doubt they ever met. But he’s sure they have. So they get to talking again and –

They meet again and we learn a little more about him. He’s an artist. A little more about her. She was sent to Catholic boarding school when she was six. Her father’s dying but, he’ll be okay. He does that. Gets sick and then gets better.

Each time they meet, there’s a tension between Him and Her. What did they do last time they went out drinking? What did they say? They play a game sometimes, pretending to be other people. She’s good at it. She’s got it down pat. Sometimes she sounds rough as guts. Sometimes she’s a little posh, maybe new money, and someone’s keeping her in long coats and rivers of booze.

Sometimes there’s a charm in their rendezvous and reconnections. They can be funny together. They can have fun together. But these meetings and returns aren’t the meets-cute of a romantic comedy. These are meets-ugly. Unsure. Inexplicable. Rough.

Joe White’s Blackout Songs is an exploration of co-dependency and self-destruction. It’s hard to watch, but it draws the audience in. We like these people, perhaps. Or we feel sorry for them. Or we hope they can make sobriety work. But White isn’t interested in revelation or redemption. He’s interested in exploring a difficult relationship, with two protagonists who bring out the worst in each other.

The structure of the play uses our expectations against us. The clue is in the title of the play – “blackout” – the moments between scenes on stage, where the lights are down and anything could be happening. Time passes in the blackouts. People change in the blackouts.

She explains at one stage that classic Greek theatre used this technique to avoid showing the worst things in a story. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, you don’t see Oedipus fuck his mum or pluck his dad’s eyes out. The audience is blinded to the violence. In White’s play, we blackout when the characters do.

Red Stitch’s production of Blackout Songs doesn’t take the blackouts of the script literally, though. Between scenes we are treated to the stage awash in the digital video of Meri Blazevki; an impressionistic look at Him and Her on their nights out. These help to capture the blurriness of inebriation; it’s overwhelming and, dare I say it, intoxicating. Our vision is overwhelmed by these brief glimpses.

But we’re no better prepared by these videos for the next meeting. Or the next. Or the next. What happened or what was said is left to our imagination. White deliberately elides information that might be helpful in our understanding of the characters or for them to really know each other. There’s a moment where He shouts at Her for not remembering a deeply personal memory from his childhood – but it’s something we’ve been deprived of, too. Did he ever say it? Did she really forget?

Sarah Sutherland and Jack Twelvetree negotiate the intimate dance of meeting and fighting and memory loss and illness by creating fully-realised characters that could easily tip into caricature if they ever went near over-the-top. They nudge it, for sure, in a way that rollicking drunk people can feel like too much when you're in their presence. But this is real. This is true.

Sutherland’s character is bold and brash and, at times, thoroughly unpleasant, but there’s a richness of performance that makes it impossible for us to dismiss her. Twelvetree brings to life a man who is open-hearted and honest, perhaps to his detriment. Twelvetree is remarkable in they way he tackles the changing face and attitude of the character who might just be able to make it out alive.

Chiara Wenban and director Tom Healey worked together to create a set that stands in for studio and church and pub and bedroom and squat, that feels like a bunker and a prison cell. It’s stark but not completely sterile. Natalia Velasco Moreno’s lighting helps to make it all seem more inviting than it really is, echoing the state of the relationship between Him and Her. At moments it feels warm, even when it’s really hard surfaces and sheer drops.

Tom Healey has pulled everything together with an assured vision, guiding the performers to find reality inside their unrelenting, downward spirals. He knows that these characters are still worth empathising with, even as they lash out and push back and never relent. It’s an impressive and expressive package to present to an audience, who are dragged through the depths with these two sad, lonely and damaged people.

Blackout Songs is bleak and unflinching. It is difficult and confronting and deeply real. But if you are going to see a 100-minute play of two people tearing themselves and each other apart, you need to feel that it’s true. In the moments seen and unseen. In the truths you’re confronted with, in the songs they sing and in the blackouts.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Blackout Songs plays at Red Stitch until June 30th 

Photos: James Reiser