Bloomsbury Theatre, London
Alcoholism. It's a great subject for drama - look at Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Clean and Sober - but comedy? Hmmm. How many laughs can there be in a man so desperate for a drink he sells the wedding ring that has slipped off the finger of an aunt wasting away with cancer?
Quite a few, as it happens. The great achievement of Off My Face, Owen O'Neill's one-man show about his experiences as an alcoholic, is that he mines gags from what should by all rights be barren territory for comedy. He demonstrates that humour can be found in even the bleakest situations. Jokes about the drink-related damage to your relationships with your mother and son, anyone? Sure, coming right up.
That's not to say that Off My Face has you rolling in the aisles. O'Neill often cleverly pulls the audience up with a sobering revelation in the middle of an intoxicating laugh. For instance, his pretend-pissed observation that the addition of mini-sausages to tins of baked beans must have been thought up by an alcoholic was silenced when he recalled that his drunkenness had left a footballer paralysed. But that intermingling of the silly and the sad only makes the show more effective.
Bringing to life various colourful - oh alright then, tanked-up - characters in his slightly overlong monologue, O'Neill conjures up a depressing image of a man determined to self-destruct more quickly than the tape at the beginning of Mission: Impossible. He misses the birth of his daughter because he's indulging in kinky sex with a boozy disco pick-up - the sound of him spanking the woman neatly segues into the sound of the new-born baby being slapped by the midwife.
He spirals so far out of control that the timetable for one week reads like this: Monday, nearly burnt down the house after drunken encounter with a chip-pan. Tuesday: admitted to hospital with alcoholic poisoning. Wednesday: discharged himself and flew to Ireland. Thursday: Found by police, with an empty vodka bottle face-down on mother's grave. Friday: After being arrested by the British Army, jumped 90 feet from helicopter into a vegetable-patch and ended up with a fractured jaw, two broken legs, a ruptured spleen, and a compound fracture of the ribcage. How's that for the Diary of a Dipsomaniac Madman?
Without ever preaching - surely the sworn enemy of comedy - O'Neill uses brutal honesty to show how close to the brink drink took him. Even if only half of it is true, he builds up such a pitiable picture of a boozer for whom deceit and denial have become a way of life that it's enough to make you take The Pledge on the spot.
It is not hard to see why Guinness recently requested that Off My Face be withdrawn from the Manchester Irish Arts Festival it was sponsoring. The show is hardly calculated to make you want to rush out and glug down barrel-loads of the Black Stuff.
Indeed, although during the curtain-calls O'Neill gleefully mimed the audience sinking pints, after the show, the bar at the Bloomsbury seemed to be doing particularly slow business.
Owen O'Neill's 'Off My Face' is at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London, WC1 (0171-388 8822) to Sat.Reuse content