Saturday 20 April 2013


Ablutions by Patrick deWitt is the tale of an unnamed Hollywood barman who writes in the second person about his unraveling life, although when he might be sober enough to put pen to paper isn't really clear. He's writing 'notes for a novel', wonderfully descriptive character sketches of his customers, fellow bar staff and the resident ghost, as well as the downward spiral of his disintegrating relationship with his wife.

This is a dark tale of alcohol and drug addiction; of a clientele of drifters down on their luck who quickly lose any slight veneer of respectability they might once have had as they become regulars. Despite its grim subject matter it's often very funny and although he's the sort of person, with his rotten teeth and stale breath, in real life you'd walk a mile out of your way to avoid, our barman just about holds it together every night and emerges as some sort of likeable rogue hero of the mess. Perhaps it's because he displays an admirable amount of self-knowledge - but perhaps that's the reason why he drinks. Eventually though, he realizes he has to get away to survive and sets off on a road trip to the Grand Canyon, which he hopes will be his chance to clean up.

Now Fellswoop Theatre  have taken these 'notes for a novel' and transformed them into a play, developed as part of Bristol Old Vic's Ferment initiative that supports artistic development. Fellswoop are a young theatre company who won the NSDF Edinburgh Emerging Artists Award in 2011 for their show Belleville Rendez-Vous. With Ablutions they are devising in much darker territory; how will they fare in adapting a tale so lacking in any conventionally linear story line?

Well, by using passages of the book as narrative to link different episodes from the barman's notes, Fellswoop have been able to capture the tone of the book exactly. Original music, directed by Ben Osborn, threads through the production and brings the different scenes together effortlessly, so that you only really notice its impact when there's a pause for dramatic effect. Their repetition at intervals of key parts of this music and the text also brings a cyclical coherence to what could so easily be chaos; I particularly liked the barman's beseeching of his wife
 Let me take you to the say, and think again of the rippling, rising curtain in the cold dark room of the theatre, and of your wife's soft hand in yours and of her face, not angry and tight as it has been so often lately, but soft and pretty, as when you were courting, and she loved you...

 The tiny cast do a remarkable job on a stage bereft of any scenery, with Eoin Slattery convincing as the booze and pill-wrecked barman, Fiona Mikel like a young Olivia Colman dazzling her way through all the female parts and Harry Humberstone providing much of the grotesque comedy as the assorted customers and bar-staff with a particular tour de force as the health food store assistant. I particularly liked it when the empty space was given a sense of place by using a specific point on the stage, say to represent the barman's regular gas station stops, and thought this could have been incorporated more widely to represent other locations, such as the shape of the bar. I also found I didn't always totally believe some of the imaginary props were there, such as the glasses and bottles in the reaching for and pouring of drinks, which at times could have been more exact.

But I am being very picky here, because overall this is an absorbing new production from an energetic, intelligent and seriously talented young company which I'm excited to have seen. Although Ablutions has now finished its run at Bristol Old Vic, there is a tour scheduled for this June and July and I would urge you to catch it if you can.

Pictures courtesy of Bristol Old Vic

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