Pros: A thoroughly well-tuned dissection of a Californian bartender, accompanied by a running acoustic soundtrack.
Cons: A rather abrupt ending – but it leaves the audience wanting more.
The audience enters to a blacked-out room, with two men and a woman playing guitars and singing a low, shoo-wop shoo-wah ballad. In the shadows, a barely-seen man goes through the motions of serving drinks, cleaning glasses and polishing a virtual bar top.
When the lights come up you realise that there is no more to be seen: the play uses an entirely bare set, in which Eoin Slattery in the role of the unnamed California bartender conjures up the impression of a bar “similar to a turn of the century ocean-going liner”, as he describes it – all mahogany, mirrors and burgundy carpet.
Known only as “you” – the name by which he refers to himself – the bartender takes us through a catalogue of his regular clientèle, played in turn by the versatile Fiona Mikel and, taking breaks from playing guitar, the gangly and at times truly horrific Harry Humberstone. Between them they play all the male and female characters, imbuing each with their own accent, personality and body language. That just leaves the fourth performer, Ben Osborn, who keeps up a running electro-acoustic guitar backing throughout almost the entire performance.
Despite being largely in control of his bar, the bartender’s life is not a happy one. Harassed by his boss’s finicky wife for giving away too many drinks (and for his own predilection for top-shelf whisky), as well as by his own wife for his drunkenness, he conceals from everyone his chronic liver pain caused by Hepatitis C: “You are a trained silent vomiter. As far as your wife is concerned, you have never vomited in all your time together.”
After his wife leaves him the bartender sets off on an odyssey road trip, taking in Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and the Grand Canyon; but wherever he goes, he’s unable to shake off his own alcoholism and the grounds of humanity he encounters. “Whisky tastes like milk. Food tastes like milk. Cocaine tastes like milk. Everything tastes like milk.”
What could in less accomplished hands have been a depressing saga instead turns out to be a joyous, uplifting and thoroughly entertaining production. Excellent performances and an inspired musical backing combine to make this a powerful, resonant evening.
Adapted from the novel by: Patrick Dewitt
Director: Bertrand Lesca
Composer: Ben Osborn
Producer: Fellswoop Theatre
Booking Until: Sunday 22 February
Box Office: 020 7478 0100
Booking Link: www.sohotheatre.com/whats-on/ablutions/