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

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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).