Ablutions, Soho Theatre


We sometimes talk about theatre that intoxicates; performance that, like a drug, invades the senses. But how often does it really achieve the warmth, the fuzziness, the edge of nausea that comes from one (or two, or three) too many drinks? I’m not talking drunk acting, at which theatre can be both glorious and excruciating. I mean: how much theatre actually wraps us up in the inebriation it represents?

Ablutions, Fellswoop Theatre’s adaptation of the Patrick Dewitt novel of the same name, gets pretty damn close. Every ingredient of the production, from the woozily repetitive live soundtrack to the dim, occasionally throbbing lights, is swirled into a potent cocktail of intoxication and imagination. A hangover is a fierce snarl of electric guitar; the glitter and excess of Las Vegas materialises from little more than flashing lights and slurred Elvis.

Our guide through this blurred landscape is an unnamed, alcoholic barman, forever blankly pulling pints. Though actually, that’s not quite right. Because Ablutions maintains the key stylistic feature of Dewitt’s novel, relating all the action in the second person. You shoot the breeze with the losers propping up the bar, you drive home drunk to your furious wife, you clutch the pain in your side from your knackered liver. You’re the one retching silently yet again in the bathroom and reaching for the pills as you take a shower. And we, the audience, are oddly implicated.

The performances have the same giddy, swirling feel as the rest of the production. Eoin Slattery as protagonist-cum-narrator is the only fixed point, a slight slouch in the shoulders and all light extinguished from his eyes, while Fiona Mikel and Harry Humberstone orbit him as a wide surrounding cast of (often larger than life) supporting characters. People have a habit of drifting in and out of the story, dissolving as suddenly as they appear, like ghosts or drunken visions.

If the show sometimes feels like it’s turning in circles, it’s only apt. The haze of alcohol and drugs fucks up temporality – was that conversation last week? last month? just a moment ago? – and Dewitt’s protagonist is always moving without getting anywhere. Like the circular movement with which he interminably wipes pint glasses, his life (or should that be our life?) has been a constant carousel of drink, drudgery and disappointment. Even an aimless road trip to the Grand Canyon eventually brings him full circle, right back to where he started.

Problem is, this circularity doesn’t always make for engaging theatre. Initially the looping, echoes and repetition are intriguing and hypnotic, but it all feels stretched out just that bit too far, beginning to test the patience by the end. You also get the feeling that extended second-person narration works better in print than in performance, where it starts to labour. Walking out of the theatre and into the chill winter air, Ablutions quickly feels like the drunken daze it depicts: a dizzying, disorientating and ambivalent interlude.