THEATRE / Seen through the bottom of a glass: Paul Taylor reviews King Baby, James Robson's new play about drying out, at The Pit

There's a droll moment in Robert Altman's movie The Player when a hot-shot Hollywood executive, who looks all set to supplant the protagonist from his powerful post at the studio, admits that he's on his way to an AA meeting. 'I didn't know you had a drink problem,' simpers our hero. 'I don't,' comes the unabashed reply, 'but that's where all the deals are being made these days.' Tinseltown is clearly a place where not to have a drink problem can be a problem.

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).

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015