For a lot of people I suspect the idea of pub theatre conjures up some dismaying images. Stuffy, noisy rooms with cramped seating; dram with plenty of am. But that’s rarely if ever true these days.
London’s pub theatre scene is incredibly rich. The capital is blessed with some truly great venues. Islington’s pioneering King’s Head is still warmly regarded despite the death of founder Dan Crawford. West London’s Finborough continually stages exciting and unexpected work, and is currently running a season of rediscovered dramatic gems.
One of the best is undoubtedly Battersea’s Theatre 503, recently rhapsodized about by the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner as “arguably the most important theatre in Britain today.” While that might be pushing it, it’s still a great space. A nicely-laid out studio above the Latchemere pub, it specializes in new writing and discovering new voices.
Their current show may be by a more established writer, Irish playwright Owen MacCafferty, but the nature of the material – a spare and striking monologue about grief and alcoholism was unlikely to find a home in a larger venue.
As you enter the theatre, actor Patrick O’Kane is already onstage, slumped on a bench, seemingly dozing, a bottle at his feet. With his slurred speech and drunkard’s gait, he initially appears the kind of man you’d hate to be sat next to on a train or bus. A talkative drunk, keen to share his story with anyone who’ll listen. But, thanks to the combined talents of McCafferty and O’Kane, this isn’t a problem, you want to know where his story is going, even though you know from the start it can’t be anywhere good.
O’Kane plays an alcoholic locked in one-sided conversation with his recently deceased dad, reliving his memories of the people he’s lost: the mother who walked out on him when he was a child, the wife with whom he shared a bitter, booze-fuelled marriage.
McCafferty’s play is a powerful and compelling piece of writing where the lulls and pauses mean as much as the sometimes rambling narrative. And O’Kane (fresh from a successful run in A Whistle In The Dark at the Tricycle) milks the music from every sentence.
You may see his tragic revelation coming a mile off, but it still hits you hard when it arrives and this is once again down to O’Kane’s superb performance, pitching into as raw a portrayal of grief as you’re likely to see on the stage. Cold Comfort offers few new insights into the nature of loss or lure of the bottle, and its extremely bleak but for all that it’s still an experience very worth having at a theatre very worth visting.