REVIEW (from a distance): The Red, Original Theatre Company

Trigger warning: This review contains discussion of addiction, particularly alcoholism.

If your family has been playing Covid dominoes like ours, you might be in the market for some digital theatre after yet another long day of being stuck in the house. Thankfully, Original Theatre Company have you covered, with a range of online productions to suit your mood. You can still catch their touching tribute to the Penlee Lifeboat disaster Into The Night (check out our review here) and if you missed their hilarious touring production of The Hound of the Baskverilles (which we reviewed in person last year) you can catch it online from 14 April. Also playing online at the moment is The Red, an online adaptation of Marcus Brigstocke’s award winning audio play which has previously had acclaimed runs at Omnibus Theatre and 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Although Brigstocke is best known as a comedian, the subject matter of this play is distinctly serious (albeit with a sprinkling of dark humour). Based on his own recovery, The Red is a story about one man’s complicated relationships with alcohol and his wine-loving father, performed by real life father and son, Bruce Alexander and Sam Alexander. A teenage alcoholic, Benedict (Sam Alexander) has been sober for 25 years. But on the day of his father’s funeral, he finds himself in the family wine cellar with a letter from his father (Bruce Alexander) bearing a simple request; that he drinks a final toast from the bottle of vintage wine that his father had always longed to share with him.

The request at first is so shocking, so unthinkable that it seems hard to see how this the play can last an hour. Surely after a quarter of a century he will just say no and go back upstairs for a glass of Waitrose cloudy apple juice? And, at first, Benedict is resolute. Why would he risk everything on something that tastes nice? How could his father even ask that of him, knowing what he went through all those years ago? But it’s never as simple as just saying no and walking out of the room. And soon more questions come: What if? Why not? And so, over the course of the next hour we see Benedict play out the same conversation that he has in his own head every day, except this time there’s another voice in his head too. And while the script is familiar, the ending feels less certain than ever.

It’s a fascinating play which gives a real insight into the relentless pull of addiction as it niggles away at even the most enduring resolve. It also really makes you think about how drinking culture pervades so many normal interactions, and how hard it must be to constantly feel different in those situations. By staging it as a conversation with Benedict’s deceased father, there is a really interesting parallel between the power that the dead have over the living and the power of alcohol over the recovering addict. It’s uncomfortable yet compelling to watch as we see Benedict wrestle with the desire to fulfill his father’s wishes. With his father gone, Benedict is safe to have the conversation they could never have had when he was alive. And as he opens up, he edges ever closer to the decision he maintains he will not make, even as he stands with the open bottle in his hand.

Breaking the decision down into a series of small steps, he asserts that he is no closer to drinking it because he would need to choose to pour it, raise it to his lips and then choose to drink it. Step by step, even as he reaches for the glass, he keeps on convincing himself that it’s not over until it’s over. But even if it were over, would it really be over? Or would it be ok? And so the questions begin again, his father’s side of the conversation switching between what feels like emotional blackmail and an attempt to try and support something that he doesn’t truly understand. The decision to cast a real life father and son works brilliantly here, making it feel really authentic. It’s really interesting to get their take on it in the programme, which also contains Brigstocke’s thoughts on how the play is inspired by his relationship with his own father.

As you might expect, the ending remains powerfully ambiguous but we can safely say that neither of us fancied a drink after watching The Red. Not the lightest evening’s entertainment but despite the heavy subject matter it’s a really engaging and thought-provoking piece of work which will undoubtedly resonate in many different ways for different people. Another success for Original Theatre Company and their fantastic online programme.

The Red is available on demand from 16 March to 16 June 2022. We received complimentary press access.

Photo credit: Tom Grace