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A CurtainUp London Review
Step 9 of 12
by Sebastian King
Step 9 of 12 tells the story of Keith (Blake Harrison), a former alcoholic, on his way to recovery thanks to the popular Twelve-Step Program. As the title suggests, Keith is currently at Step 9, in which sufferers are encouraged to apologise to those they have harmed, and to seek forgiveness. In this instant, the recipients of Keith’s apology are middle-aged couple Alan (Barry McCarthy) and Judith (Wendy Nottingham). The nature of their relationship to Keith and the extent to which he has harmed them are not initially clear, and information is gradually drip-fed to us as the play unfolds.
As Keith, Harrison is a dominating presence. Although there are occasional traces of the gawky Neil in his performance, he successfully manages to shake off the looming shadow of his on-screen persona, in his sympathetic yet disturbing portrait of a man whose life and sanity seem to be in limbo. As his catalogue of misdemeanours increases, we feel more and more distanced from this initially comic character, yet we continue to follow his mental stream of skewed logic. Barry McCarthy’s Alan is a man struggling to do his best in a situation he would rather not be a part of, while Wendy Nottingham as Judith brings an icy tension to the dynamic. Although only appearing in the final few moments, Ben Dilloway, recently seen in Mercury Fur, makes a big impact as the similarly emotionally scarred Mark.
Francesca Reidy’s recreation of Keith’s dilapidated flat, complete with holes in the wall, peeling wallpaper and rising damp is incredibly detailed, and gives a real sense of claustrophobia. The audience are very much part of the action, and there is no escape from the real threat of the situation. In this restricted space, Tom Attenborough’s simple and sensitive direction ensures that the focus remains predominantly on Hayes’s text.
Advertised as a ‘dark comedy’, Hayes’s play definitely focuses on the darkness more than the comedy. Constantly catching the audience off guard, and taking the plot down unexpected pathways, this is absurdism disguised as realism, with a clear nod towards the ‘in-yer-face’ theatre of the 1990s. Its brutal descriptions of acts of sex and violence, and a dangerously realistic fight sequence, leave us feeling unsettled and unnerved, but ultimately gripped in this intense piece by an exciting new voice in British Theatre.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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