Nimbly adapted from Patrick deWitt’s debut novel, Ablutions is a woozy kind of play that amid all the booze and the pills (and the slightly iffy structure), still stumbles home.
We follow Eoin Slattery’s washed-up “Barman”, who’s starting to lose his personality to drink – his memory’s up the spout, his wife’s tired of him and he’s spending more and more time with the losers that prop-up the run-down bar in Hollywood where he works. Losers like Curtis, a drunken sleaze-ball with a perma-frown; Audrey, who’s a ghost, and Simon, a failed actor-turned-barman who, for a while now, has ruthlessly had his fingers in the till.
The supplementary characters are all played by Fiona Mikel and Harry Humberstone, who make a decent job of morphing into the different roles. Mikel, dressed in high waisted denim, a billowy white blouse and looks slightly like she cuts her own hair, has perhaps the hardest task, portraying something like half a dozen different Southern women all in various states of unravel. Humberstone is incredibly watchable too, he’s kind of lanky and elastic, rather like if someone got hold of Rowan Atkinson and elongated him. The whole thing is tied nicely together by the onstage musician Ben Osborn who plays throughout and gives what might otherwise be a sparse story some real colour. Routinely, Mikel and Humberstone join him for a few bars of an overplayed jukebox number, or else some other musical interlude or accompaniment. In fact, the interplay of music and drama works incredibly well in Ablutions, giving the whole play a very slick, stylish gloss.
It’s when we get beneath that veneer that things start to go awry, though. The story is basically non-existent. The second act sees the Barman hire an RV and take off on a solo road trip to the Grand Canyon for no reason whatsoever, and then return home because he’s forgotten about the shifts he’s got at the bar. As a character the barman is pretty impoverished too – he’s not fun or funny, he’s got no goal or drive; he’s just a somewhat vague, hungover, puffy-faced bundle of listless displeasure. Perhaps that’s the point – maybe the booze has robbed him of his individuality and his spark. But if that is the desired effect, it looks indistinguishable from a poorly fleshed-out protagonist.
Ablutions rattles along at a nice pace, and there are some excellent set pieces – Mikel’s noodle-eating colonic irrigationist springs to mind – but it’s irredeemably bleak. The kind of bleakness you see in the unscrupulous meanness of Fish Tank, or the dead-eyed thrusting in Steve McQueen’s Shame: there’s no light; no lightness of touch. Everyone’s out for what they can get. Everyone’s on the take. So, with Ablutions, you’re faced with an unanswerable question: why am I routing for this guy? He drives drunk, he gives other people Hepatitis C, he hates himself and his life and has got no real desire to change anything about it. So what’s stopping him just turning the wheel of that RV into oncoming traffic?
One could argue this is the fault of deWitt’s novel, which is more or less faithfully adhered to here – the constant use of the second person, present tense (“You go to the bar. You climb the stairs.”) certainly starts to grate after about 15 seconds in both book and play – but then why stick so slavishly to the source material? Have the confidence to push the envelope a little bit.