Blackout Songs at Hampstead Theatre – review

Joe White’s world premiere drama runs until 10 December

Rebecca Humphries and Alex Austin in Blackout Songs
Rebecca Humphries and Alex Austin in Blackout Songs
© Robert Day

For most of Joe White's new play, Blackout Songs, we don't know the two characters' names. Indeed, in the script they are referred to merely as ‘Her' and ‘Him'. In fact, we don't know a whole lot about them either, just fragments they choose to share: He is at art college, She has troubled family relationships, but plenty of money to spend. They meet at an AA meeting. Stories that feel both like memories and roleplay intertwine, repeat and confuse: Who said what? When did these things really happen?

White's play about two alcoholics drawn to each other is a compelling watch that carefully unpicks ideas about pain and art, co-dependency and whether you can truly know someone whilst both are under the influence. Guy Jones' direction has the two actors play on Anisha Field's minimal set of brown hall flooring with stacks of chairs. There are snatches of stylised movement to express distress which feel cliché and from a different production: this one would be just as effective without, as well as the extended strobe lighting (by Christopher Nairne) and piercing sound effects (Holly Khan). Stacks of chairs are used to represent bottles, and like the characters' names, props don't appear until towards the end of the play during moments of sobriety – a clever touch.

As the couple, Rebecca Humphries and Alex Austin are really quite captivating. Humphries in particular is a whirlwind, full of acerbic wit and straight-faced one-liners ("What are you working on?" "I'm a serial killer") that reel you into the dizzying dance. She's intriguing and flirtatious, and Austin's character is completely hooked. Their on-off-again relationship is punctuated by gaps in memory ("Where did this tooth come from?" "Didn't he used to stammer?") when they meet again (and again), which does make the play feel stagnant as it veers towards its ending, but perhaps that encapsulates the feeling of their situations the best.

This is a dark, witty yet truthful production with solid, captivating performances by Humphries and Austin. It's just a shame that we're not let in or feel like we can care about these two individuals until the final moments.