Powerless, Barons Court Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Over the course of a dozen scenes, Alice Kahrmann's play Powerless boldly picks away at the 12-step plans available to recovering addicts.

Over the course of a dozen scenes, Alice Kahrmann's play Powerless boldly picks away at the 12-step plans available to recovering addicts. Among an abundance of food for thought (the two hours' traffic of her play is packed from start to finish with big questions), she asks: is there no alternative programme in which the individual can recover without being subsumed into the therapy herd? Must we, in the words of step two, come to believe that "a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity"?

Her central character, Nina (Jenny Harrold), is an addict and a writer, and we veer off into musings on the nature of her craft that are far less interesting than the issues at hand. The old chestnut about "write what you know" here becomes a licence to write about writing, and muddies the proceedings.

If the play lacks anything, it is perhaps a character who doesn't understand drugs, who lives outside the bubble of addiction, to set the horrors in relief. As it is, the milieu is created in isolation and a couple of characters exist as plot devices: most notably, the programme-leader, Morgan (Eugene Washington), seeming a suitable case for treatment himself, highly emotional and speaking almost exclusively in the arguments that the writer wants to shoot down.

But for all that, it is a play of some wit and style, with a lot of interesting takes on the high-profile millennial issues of addiction and therapy. Does addiction to therapy replace the original addiction? There's even a McCarthyite suggestion that we are all addicts and should be dragged before some commission for unhealthy activities.

The director, Bronwen Carr, moves the action well around this treacherous but thrilling little space. One or two scenes boil over into EastEnders territory but the scene in which Nina's destructive relationship with her boyfriend, Daniel (Travis Oliver, who is excellent), comes to a suicidal head in a storm of cocaine paranoia is memorable stuff indeed. And the technique of chorus-like chanting of the 12 steps cleverly suggests the power of mantra, while giving a slightly chilling, automatic feel to the process.

Alexa Asjes, as Carla, appears just once - in a recovering addicts' meeting - but laces that scene with startling detail and well-observed subliminal gestures, physically covering herself as she verbally opens out. Her performance typifies the high standard of acting throughout the company. Harrold invests her Nina with an indomitable humanity. Philip Leamon's addict Johnny is hilariously redolent of the irascible Dylan Moran character in Black Books, if occasionally a little large for the space. Oliver doubles hilariously as Martin, the recovering addict.

There are times when this complex play even feels like a wistful "Dear John" letter to the drug experience. And - for all its flaws - it is bravery such as this that keeps it compelling.

To 23 January (020-8932 4747)

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