This review was originally featured on Exeunt Magazine on 10th June 2014
A personal connection with alcoholism is hard to feign. Those who don’t have any lived experience of the disease tend to fall back on bargain basement aphorisms, through no fault of their own: as a society, we still seem to perpetuate an image of alcoholism that would be better at home in the 1940s. Though our language is essentially indifferent towards it, as a noun it still feels inherently masculine. It’s a disease for old men stumbling out of pubs after closing time. It’s warm beer and cheap whiskey. There is a collective blind spot that we seem to want to foster, and in it abide all of the alcoholic misfits who don’t adhere to this strict archetype. Perhaps they are the wrong class, colour, or gender. Perhaps they drink the wrong drink. Perhaps they just don’t drink ‘enough’ – how many binges is too many binges? In Blackout, playwright and actor Mark Jeary has set out to explore the nature of addiction, and to challenge some of our outmoded notions of what it means to be an alcoholic.
Over the course of 55 minutes, we hear five authentic and strong stories of addiction, one of them Jeary’s own. This is a journey that is sometimes euphoric, sometimes degrading, and predominantly out of control. Directors Joshua Payne and Belle Jones have sensibly given this play plenty of space to breathe. The characters are shoeless and nameless. The stage is almost empty, save for a mattress (what is it about a double mattress on a bare floor that is so strongly evocative of a clammy, damp, run-down bedsit?) and a few chairs, giving the stories the imaginative legroom to be told without constraint.
The five narratives, constructed through a series of interviews with recovering alcoholics, are punchy, unapologetic, and unsentimental. The group begin by individually recounting their descent in to alcoholism, from the first illicit sip as a shy teenager at a party, to top trumping each other with increasingly more degrading and dangerous scenarios – the image of a woman drunkenly teetering and squatting to take a piss off the top of the Scott Monument is filthy and horrifying in equal measure. Ultimately, all of the five see that rock bottom coming up at them alarmingly quickly through the chaos, the sexual promiscuity, and the physical degradation, and all try and avoid it by delving deeper in to the drink.
The five-strong ensemble deliver equally strong and convincing performances, though it’s Miriam-Sarah Doren’s ‘Four’ who really packs a punch; her agonising, angsty snapshot of a mother who cannot help but terrorise her son during her blackout rages lurks in the mind for days after the final bows. What Jeary captures so distressingly perfectly is the utter selfishness of alcoholism. Even after nearly battering her son to death with a kitchen stool, ‘Four’ flippantly remarks, whilst smiling, that “obviously he’s no dead, ‘cause I’d be talking to you from the jail”. It’s this self-centered thinking that sends shockwaves through families, breaks selfless hearts, and burns what Jeary terms a ‘hole in the soul’.
This play feels like it is still on a journey, rather than settled in its destination. Though it is refreshing and commendable to see the unrepresented faces of alcohol addiction on stage, the fact that all five characters end up in recovery by the end feels neatly unrealistic and over-optimistic: frankly, not everyone does. Putting a personal preference for gritty endings aside, this one does feel too perfectly packaged. Regardless, this is an important piece of work that asks difficult questions of our perceptions of alcoholism. This is not so much Jeary’s heart on stage, as much as it is his guts. One character thanks God for his blackouts because they allow him to forget. I thank Mark Jeary for his Blackout because it forces us to think.