(Matt Wolf’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/24; via Pam Green; Photo: Rebecca Humphries and Alex Austin in “Blackout Songs,” directed by Guy Jones at the Hampstead Downstairs.Credit…Robert Day.)
The cushion of state money let the Hampstead and Donmar playhouses develop broad programs with international reach. Now they must find creative ways to play on.
LONDON — Standing ovations at London theaters are drearily routine these days, but I experienced one a few weeks ago that felt genuinely impassioned. I’m thinking of the fervent audience response to a new two-character play, “Blackout Songs,” on Hampstead Theater’s intimate second stage. (The show runs at the 100-seat Hampstead Downstairs until Dec. 10.)
Chronicling the bruised and bruising relationship between two self-destructive drinkers who meet at an A.A. meeting, Joe White’s spiky tragicomedy is impressive on several fronts. Its performers, Alex Austin and Rebecca Humphries, fearlessly inhabit two restless lovers trying to stave off psychic and physical ruin. The writing plays with time, asking the audience to piece together a fragmented narrative that views these characters — unnamed until the very end — at critical points as they ricochet in and out of each other’s lives.
The play asks a lot of the two actors, who meet its demands with force. But there was an additional reason for the palpable excitement in the house at the show’s end that night. The excellence of the show dealt a direct rebuke to the still fresh news of major cuts in government subsidies for arts institutions across London, in which the Hampstead lost its entire grant. Work like “Blackout Songs” is what the Hampstead exists to do, and suddenly the theater felt at risk.
The same fate befell the venerable Donmar Warehouse, another small theater with an outsize reach. Might the activity of two playhouses so crucial to the theatrical ecosystem — not just in London — be somehow curtailed? Would they have to become safer, less adventurous?
Both houses have long shown their importance, here and overseas. Equipped with three auditoriums between them (the Hampstead has a 370-seat main stage as well), they have generated a substantial body of work, sending shows from London into the world and also offering homes to shows from abroad. The Donmar has just staged the European premiere of “The Band’s Visit”; a second American musical, “Next to Normal,”
To cut these theaters’ subsidies is to advocate, willingly or not, for shrunken ambitions. Philanthropy and commercial activities can pick up the slack, of course, as in the United States. But donor bases don’t arrive overnight. The cushion of state money let the Hampstead and the Donmar develop broad programs with international reach. Unless the theaters tread carefully, the effects of the cut will be felt far beyond London.
I can easily see international producers snapping up “Blackout Songs,” not least because its compactness — two characters, one set — is attractive financially. But the director Guy Jones’s production sets the bar high. On a bare stage with just a few chairs, the play’s jagged, nonlinear style is accompanied by whiplash shifts in mood that Humphries and the compellingly volatile Austin capture with ease. The impact couldn’t be stronger, prompting the best sort of guessing game about where the play might end up next.