“A mirror reflects a man’s face but what he is really like is shown by the kind of friends he chooses”
It may be unusual for Civilian Theatre to be quoting from Proverbs but the title ‘Ablutions’ has already thrown us one rather heavy-handed piece of religious symbolism, and watching the travails of our barman/hero it is not hard to recognise that the trip he embarks upon midway through the play could have easily been towards Damascus as it was towards the Grand Canyon.
In Fellswoop’s adaptation of the debut novel from Booker Prize nominated author Patrick deWitt we are deep into the realms of the redemptive road-trip, with a side order of the cleansing power of the bottle. From what was, apparently, an already strange and lurid confection Fellswoop have given us a rather bizarre musical and mime show.
It is a play that is certainly not without its charms. The musicianship and technical ability of the cast are highly impressive. We are provided with a lovingly crafted soundscape and the cast of Eoin Slattery, Fiona Mikel and Harry Humberstone are able to recreate a complete Hollywood dive bar, with a fully stocked array of colourful regulars, through the use of physical theatre and some wonderfully grotesque characterisations.
Humberstone – perhaps given more licence than the rest to stretch his characters to the extremes – provides us with enough sleazy figures by himself to have the audience squirming in their seats. Whilst I hope that someone as disturbingly charmless as Curtis doesn’t actually exist, I have a horrible suspicion that bars around the world will prove me wrong.
The core of the story belongs to Slattery’s Barkeeper. We join him when, if he isn’t already a loser, he is fast on his way to becoming one; living a life where work, friends and drink have combined to create a spiralling descent into an alcoholic’s chaos.
As his life collapses he has a moment that forces an epiphany and he embarks on a road trip across America. This is where the play begins to both lose its way and become more enjoyable. One of the flaws of the production is that it doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to be.
On one side we are given snapshot sketches of a hallucinatory America that will feel familiar to anyone who has read Hunter S Thompson and on the other we have something that verges on a morality tale being narrated by a central character whose general demeanour makes it very hard to empathise with, or even particular care for.
The sketches are very well done and are centered on the ability of Mikel and Humberstone to bring to life a fully-realised character in just a few lines of dialogue showcases a remarkable talent, and the scenes where they skewer a Las Vegas Bartender, a wannabe burlesque dancer from Reno or the workers of a Whole Food are funny and show flashes of brilliance.
Slattery gets cut a slightly rawer deal. It is not that he is any less impressive than the rest of the cast but he is given the unenviable task of trying to convince us to care for a man who seems quite unpleasant – if only slightly less unpleasant than those around him. The play may be showing us something true to life but it is not an aspect of life that, I now realise, I had any desire to actually be shown.
There is certainly be an audience for Ablutions; I suspect it will appeal to anyone who read the novel, and it may well find a fan base with anyone who has enjoyed the latter output of Irvine Welsh. For those of us who go out of their way to avoid the sort of bar that the play describes then they may also discover that they didn’t want to find it in the theatre either.
Watch the trailer