Saturday, 12 June 2010

REVIEW: Ingredient X, Royal Court, 9 June 2010

Anatomy of addiction

There's something about this play that lacks some punch, some theatrical edge that stops it from being a truly good piece. But truth be told in the hands of a lesser dramatist Ingredient X would have turned out an insufferable turkey. The situation is not promising: Three friends (and the boyfriend of one of them) meet up for a fun night in watching the finale of that year's Factor X and of their conversation the general theme of the work comes to light: addiction and how it has left a mark on these women's lives. Katie (Indira Varma) and Rosanna (Lesley Sharp) have suffered from being involved with men addicted to drugs, and even Katie's new partner Frank (James Lance) is a recovering addict himself. The third friend Deanne (Lisa Palfrey) is an alcoholic who refuses to admit she has a problem.

There are some good things going for the play: the very theatrical restraint of it all happening in a night, the car-crash fascination of seeing Deanne control by her addiction, the four perfomances are excellent, and there's some clever dialogue. But there are few surprises, and few memorable moments itself. Indira Varma charms her way through th therapy-babble language of Katie admirably, and James Lance paints a surprisingly understated portrait of a man who is really trying to make his new life work - his last scene, alone, cleaning up after the party, is genuinely touching.

And one can only agree with the point Nick Grosso is trying to make: that alcohol is as much if not more of a curse to Britain as illegal drugs are. He writes flawed, sympathetic human beings and there's much value in that. There's also a lot of value in writing for women of this age - not long ago Lesley Sharp complained in her masterclass at the Haymarket how difficult it is to find lead characters and challenging roles for women of her generation. Grosso has a clever eye for dialogue and offers no easy solution for the characters. Like Frank, they all have to make it day by day, learning from their mistakes. Ingredient X is also a play about mistakes and appalling decisions and how people try to blame those on every one by themselves. It's a nice twist that the character of Indira Varma, who uses all that psycho jargon to explain how addiction is an illness, is also the most resolute of them all to prove that our decisions are always our own, and we have to take responsibility for our issues.

But unfortunately none of this is enough to make the play great. Maybe I'm just burnt out on realism like this: realism itself is not an artistic value and we take at face value that something is good because it's true to life. A play is good because it is good, not because it looks like real life. I can do without all the kitchen-sink, Mike Leigh, social realism stuff the British arts have always been so full of. Ingredient X left me with a big sense of "So what?"; while it wasn't a bad play, and the actors made it worth the money, I didn't feel challenged or illuminated in any way. Real theatre should never leave you untouched.