Review by Daz Gale
After critical acclaim from its initial run at Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs space when it played last year and an Olivier award nomination to boot, Blackout Songs returns to Hampstead Theatre – this time moving to play the larger space upstairs. Could it repeat the success of its first run in a less intimate space?
Written by Joe White, Blackout Songs is centred around a couple, named only as Him and Her. After meeting at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, they embark on a whirlwind relationship full of highs and lows as the danger of drinking to excess looms ever large. What feels like a conventional, linear approach to their story isn’t quite as clear-cut as that and is open to interpretation to an extent as you wonder what parts of what you saw were reality and what was misremembered.
The heartbeat of Blackout Songs is in Joe Whites incredible writing, Multi-layered, it unravels as the one act play progresses, changing the tone and often asking more questions than it answers. What begins initially as a humorous story, full of some brilliant one-liners and punchlines gradually turns more serious as the threat of the pair’s alcoholism grows ever stronger. As the tone adapts and scenes jolt suddenly to another point in time, the one thing that never waivers is Joe Whites writing which is even more satisfying upon reflection.
Hampstead Theatres main space has brilliantly been adapted to retain the sense of intimacy for this production. With a small stage situated in the middle of the auditorium with audience members on either side, it allows for a harsh and unflinching look at the action as it unfolds. Anisha Fields bare-bones set design allows the focus to always be on the acting and the story, though there are a couple of surprises to be had in the staging. Guy Jones’ direction perfectly utilises the story and the confined space to create a truly gripping piece you daren’t take your eyes off.
One production element key to Blackout Songs is in the lighting. The frequent blackouts are mixed with lighting that can be dim at times and pulsing at others, reflecting the setting Him and Her find themselves in. Christopher Nairne’s lighting design maximises this effect, bringing more of a flair to the production. Equally impressive is Iskandar R. Sharazuddins movement direction which allows the pair to partake in an almost dance-like quality to the performance.
As Him and Her, Alex Austin and Rebecca Humphries are equally sensational. Exhibiting a phenomenal chemistry together, they complement each other perfectly as they flesh out all the complications of this unexpected pairing. Rebecca Humphries channels the manic energy of her character with a versatility that makes the more sober moments of her character all the more contrasting, while Alex Austin is constantly captivating even in the moments where he lets Rebeccas bigger performance take centre stage. Both characters change as the play progresses as their dynamic constantly adapts with each taking turns to be both dominant and dependent.
Blackout Songs is a show that truly takes you on a journey. Complex and clever, its use of foreshadowing ends up being thought-provoking with a resolution so powerful, it leaves you questioning everything you had seen in the run up to it. The way the show manages to highlight the issues of addiction and alcoholism with such a sensitive and accessible approach is admirable, and makes the impact of its climax all the stronger for it.
Exceptional writing and outstanding acting ensures that Blackout Songs is a show that will linger in your memory long after you leave the theatre. Throughout the show, the theme of leaving something for people to remember you by long after you’ve gone is repeatedly referenced – one thing is for sure, nobody who sees this show will be forgetting it in a hurry.
Blackout Songs plays at Hampstead Theatre until 6th May. Tickets available from https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2023/blackout-songs/
Photos by The Other Richard