This narrative tale follows a barman’s slide into perdition, even as he’s busy critiquing everyone around him.
Lonely, drunk and bored, the bar regulars are the object of close and highly critical scrutiny from the man serving their drinks. Yet he himself is crumbling just as quickly under the influence of whisky and a creeping illness that cannot be escaped.
Adapted by Rina Vergano from Patrick DeWitt’s novel, the play is narrated in the second person by ‘You’, the barman. Eoin Slattery is grim-faced and suitably detached as he describes the weirdos and washed-up women who frequent his Hollywood bar.
Later, we delve deeper inside his psyche as he sees his marriage crumble (‘Where will you be in five years time? Ten years time?’ wails his wife) and embarks on a desperate road trip.
However, this narrative form doesn’t leave much scope for any of the other characters to develop beyond the most basic outlines. Harry Humberstone takes on the men, including failed actor, lanky dancer and sometime-barman Simon, while Fiona Mikel tackles wives and drunks with equal vigour.
Although Slattery has a powerful presence and is entirely convincing as ‘You’, the rather flat, rambling prose of the novel is reproduced here in swathes, and at times it feels more like a writer reading his work aloud, than a fully dramatised adaptation.
There’s not much – if any – plot to speak of. It feels more like watching a series of loosely linked events, until eventually it transpires that ‘You’ is a pretty nasty piece of work with no qualms about passing on his illness, as well as adopting sly tricks with the bar’s till that he eventually uses to break free of his past.
The production’s saving grace is its use of live music, sound and song to create the atmosphere the action fails to do. Ben Osborn, musician and musical director, has composed and arranged dreamlike numbers accompanied by guitars and percussion. He, Mikel and Humberstone all harmonise beautifully in the poignant, country-style song that precedes the show, and Osborn uses instruments and voices to create intense sound effects at key moments.
Elliot Griggs also makes an invaluable contribution with his imaginative lighting design.
Fellswoop Theatre are clearly talented and committed performers, and it’s hard to see what more director Betrand Lesca could have done within the confines of this adaptation. But as a drama, Ablutions disappoints.
• Until 22 February, then touring.
http://www.sohotheatre.com or 020 7478 0100