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Joe White: "For a playwright, total transparency is always better, even if it is a no from a theatre"

Joe White: "For a playwright, total transparency is always better, even if it is a no from a theatre"

Joe White: "For a playwright, total transparency is always better, even if it is a no from a theatre" cover photo on Stagedoor
Lyn Gardner chats with the playwright of the highly praised Blackout Songs before it returns to Hampstead Theatre this April

Booze as a muse is an alluring myth. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerovac are just a few whose novels and plays have fueled the idea that creativity thrives with a glass of whisky on the desk. The playwright Joe White has tried it but says he doesn’t like the taste; it makes him cry, and before long he has given up any attempt to write and is binging Netflix instead.

But White has written a beguiling, much-praised two-hander about two people in thrall to the myth and to alcohol in Blackout Songs. It sold out Hampstead’s 100 seater downstairs theatre late last year and, early next month, returns to take up residence on the mainstage with Alex Austin and Rebecca Humphries reprising their raved-over performances as the unnamed couple who think of themselves as artists and who meet at an AA meeting and skive off to the pub together. “I have two rules,” she says. “Stay single and drink doubles.”

“It begins as a sort of meet cute,” says White, “a really lovely fun rom-com, but it turns into something much less fun and far more dangerous.” The trick of Blackout Songs, whose title has echoes of The Dream Songs—the 1969 poetry collection from John Berryman, who began each day not with a cup of tea but a martini—is the way it finds a form that reflects how the couple’s addiction destroys memory. The cleverness is that the audience has to fill in the blanks of this self-destructive romance where time is fluid and the same incidents occur but in different ways. What the audience never sees is the actors slurring and playing drunk. It’s much, much smarter than that.

“It’s like a terrible and really dangerous game. From one scene to another, everything shifts; they forget the other one, time blurs and slips, and it’s not clear what is true and what isn’t. Once I had the game and the form of it, which took a lot of thinking, the rest followed fairly easily,” says White, who mentions Florian Zeller’s The Father as one inspiration and Duncan MacMillan’s People, Places and Things as another.

Alex Austin and Rebecca Humphries in Blackout Songs. Photo by Tristram Kenton.

But White has formed himself by playing with time and fixating on memory. His bewitching and infinitely tender 2018 debut, the rural tragedy Mayfly at the Orange Tree, skipped nimbly between hallucination and reality as it explored how we keep the memory of those lost to us alive.

Blackout Songs began in response to three of White’s friends in quick succession losing their fathers to dementia, which made him interested in what that did to collective family memory. At one point, the project became more medically based, exploring the effects of Korsakoff Syndrome, a form of alcoholic induced amnesia, but was also influenced by White’s early twenties experience of living with an alcoholic.

“They were the most witty, brilliant person I’ve ever met when they were in the sweet spot, but there was a lurking violence in the house too. You learn the tools of survival living with someone like that. We lost contact, but later I heard they had died. I had always been expecting that phone call. I think that relationship is key to this play.”

Like Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, which grapples with the neurology of love and sadness and considers whether increasing dopamine hits can make two people fall in love, Blackout Songs questions the heady love story at the very heart of the play. “If you take the stimulus of alcohol away, are they the same people, and can they love each other?” asks White. “In the play, they try to go sober at various times and meet each other at points when one is sober and the other is not. The question is do they love each other or do they love being drunk?”

Alex Austin and Rebecca Humphries in Blackout Songs. Photo by Tristram Kenton.

Blackout Songs opened at Hampstead on the night the venerable North London new writing theatre received the news that it had received a 100 percent cut in funding. It is a testament to the efficacy of the theatre’s new writing strategy that White got a prompt commitment from the theatre to stage Blackout Songs, and they got it from page to stage so quickly.

“That’s a rare thing in theatre,” says White. “The common thing in theatre is for a theatre to string out development and delay committing to producing. For a playwright, total transparency is always better, even if it is a no from a theatre, rather than being constantly strung along with development work. Blackout Songs would have suffered 100 percent if it had been overdeveloped because the play has a quite aggressive energy. When I was writing it, it felt like trying to control a liquid spill which was running through the cracks, and I was trying to shape it as quickly as possible. Some plays are like painting in oils and can be manipulated for a long time, but not this one. It needed speed.”

That Hampstead recognized and responded to that makes the play’s success and transfer to the main stage all the more bittersweet. White and his play—both of which I suspect have significant commercial potential—were the happy beneficiaries of Hampstead’s new writing policies, and that is now lost to future plays and writers as the theatre pivots away from a new writing remit as it tries to survive without public subsidy.

What will happen at Hampstead remains uncertain, but White’s future looks bright. He is co-writing a musical, which should be announced later in the year, and he is looking forward to seeing Blackout Songs in a bigger space. On opening night, it’s likely he’ll be having a drink to celebrate.

Cover image from Blackout Songs playing at the Hampstead Theatre from the 8th April through the 6th May. Tickets available here.

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Lyn Gardner

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