THEATRE / Seen through the bottom of a glass: Paul Taylor reviews King Baby, James Robson's new play about drying out, at The Pit
Thursday 21 January 1993
A far cry, then, from the Phoenix Rehabilitation Unit 'somewhere in the north of England' which is the setting for King Baby, James Robson's plodding play about alcoholism and redemption, premiered now at The Pit. At this drying-out clinic, the addicts are there to 'share their shame', not to pitch products. The tricky drill is to 'accept yourself; love yourself, and then forget yourself. Join the human race'. But being able to do so depends, it seems, on finding Jesus, the 'Big Fella' as the group's counsellor Jimmy (excellent Lalor Roddy) calls him. To hear Jimmy talk, you'd swear that at the marriage feast at Cana the Big Fella had turned wine into an acceptable soft drink.
As the group members recall their rock-bottom experiences (with lots of supportive nodding from those listening) and give one another 'tough love', the play resolves into a stark contest of wills between Jimmy and James King, a nouveau riche garage owner whose jeering, where-there's- muck-there's-brass superciliousness reaches caricature proportions in Tom Georgeson's performance. This long-drawn-out clash certainly has dramatic potential, but neither in the play nor in Simon Usher's under-charged production is it properly released. The author, an alcoholic himself, seems too close to the material (and too intent on bending it to a hopeful conclusion) to get a powerful enough grip on it.
It's clear, for example, that the taunting-caring Jimmy needs to believe (and have his patients believe) the Jesus-business, in order to cling on to his own sobriety. But though this is several times stated, it's never truly felt. The opposition is likewise simplified.
Whether it's with Joyce's Stephen Daedalus or with Milton's Satan, readers and audiences are instinctively drawn to side with the character who refuses to kowtow to group orthodoxy. But if this happens at all with King (a man who can say to Jimmy 'I want to piss in your font' and who pretends to introduce alcohol to the unit to show up the shakiness of the progress achieved), then it's so faintly as to make no odds. 'You Jesus freaks, you can forgive yourselves anything,' he scoffs. But Robson presents him as such a boor, barricaded in his blustering pride, that all such remarks are instantly discredited.
Sheila Reid gives a splendid performance as the good-hearted, slaggy wife of a councillor, reduced (at one stage) to prostitution to pay for the booze. Anyone, though, who has seen the Grassmarket Project's plays in Edinburgh (in which people dramatise their own real life stories) will miss here the electricity of those rending re-enactments. It made me think of the Maggie Smith character in one of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. She's a vicar's wife who ends up having to rely on the AA. 'My group meets twice a week and I go. Religiously . . . I never liked going to one church so I end up going to two.' Hopeful, yes, but also witheringly clear-eyed about the cost. As Robson's play can't afford to be.
'King Baby' continues in the RSC repertoire at The Pit, Barbican Centre, London EC2 (071-638 8891).
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election
- 2 President of Argentina adopts Jewish godson to 'stop him turning into a werewolf'
- 3 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 4 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 5 Naomi Wolf reacts to Isis 'conspiracy theories' critism after she questions whether beheading videos are real
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
The golden age of TV comedy is here
The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
From Marvel to Star Wars: The rise of cinema’s shared universes
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Immigrants make UK racist, says Ukip councillor Trevor Shonk
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Katie Hopkins speaks out on childhood obesity: 'Parents of fat children should be prosecuted for child cruelty'