The production marks something of a departure for leading actor and former Inbetweener, Blake Harrison. As the title of Rob Hayes’ play hints, troubled protagonist Keith is going through the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve step programme. Sober for 32 days, he must now ask forgiveness from those he has hurt in his liquor-drenched past, two of whom are his long-suffering foster parents Alan and Judith, portrayed as movingly bruised individuals by Barry McCarthy and Wendy Nottingham. Keith has invited the pair to his crumbling bedsit, where he clumsily attempts to make amends over a fraught 80 minutes of small talk, confessions and recriminatory mud-slinging; less forgive and forget, more accuse and dredge up.
This attempted reconciliation, however, takes its time to go anywhere. Hayes undoubtedly has an ear for the painful nuances of strained small talk that teeters delicately on the edge of confrontation, but confrontation – or even just straightforward exposition – is not forthcoming. Exciting our curiosity is one thing, but Hayes’ writing flirts dangerously with the risk of losing his audience before his story has even truly begun. When the situation does eventually explode, we are hit with one piece of shrapnel after another: addiction, mental illness, violence, parental relationships, and the question of whether it is constructive or destructive to excavate the past.
Although the drama is confined to Keith’s dilapidated living room, there is a vague sense that his experiences are symptoms of a wider social disease, a sickness that remains stubbornly sketchy. Hayes seizes on fascinating ideas – a knife, according to Keith, is “the crudest form of power”, the final democratic tool for those robbed of options – but these are frustratingly dropped as painful memories hop from transgression to transgression. With further development, this piece might say something more profound about the nature of addiction and the circumstances that can drive an individual such as Keith to awful, desperate acts, but in its current state it offers lots of flashes and little illumination.
We are also left in the dark when it comes to Keith, a determinedly elusive character. Is he truly sorry for anything? Can he be written off as a messed-up individual who’s not quite all there, or is he playing a calculatedly manipulative game? Harrison’s performance, while aggressively banishing the gormless ghost of Neil, does little to answer such questions. He veers from cheerful loquaciousness to dangerous anger in the furrow of an eyebrow, while occasionally peeling back the bravado to expose moments of seemingly genuine vulnerability, although even these linger in that same grey area of uncertainty. Tom Attenborough’s direction, which is somewhat restricted by the confined space of Francesca Reidy’s set, also seems pitched at ambiguity, though all too often the effect is one not of mystery but of indecision.
There is much going on beneath the surface here, and Hayes proves himself as a skilled writer of sharp, dark dialogue, but the overall piece seems unsure of where it’s going, with an unexpected but melodramatic concluding twist needed to get Hayes’ characters out of the rather static situation into which they have argued themselves.