Ingredient X @ Royal Court, London

cast list
Lesley Sharp, Indira Varma, Lisa Palfrey, James Lance

directed by
Deborah Bruce
Nick Grossos new play is about addiction in all its forms.

His characters are a collection of recovering addicts, partners of addicts, addicts in denial about their own addictions, and even someone whos a veteran of several relationships with addicts: an addict-addict.

Rosanna, Deanna and Katie are three friends in their early forties. Its a Saturday night and theyre planning a night in with the X Factor in Katies apartment.

Rosanna is abrasive and mouthy, always on the verge of taking offence to something or losing her temper. Deanna is a mother of four whos made a life for herself despite a rough background. Katie is far milder than her friends; with a failed relationship with an addict rock star under her belt, shes now married to recovering drug addict Frank, with whom she has a new baby.

At the centre of the play lies a dialogue over whether addiction is a choice or a disease. Katie firmly believes that its an illness, that addicts have little say in their behaviour, that its a part of them, hard-wired. Rosanna is dismissive of this and takes the opposite view. Deanna just wants another drink, preferably with ice (though this is negotiable).

While there are some amusing verbal volleys, in Deannas disgust at the prospect of drinking rum and apple juice and in a couple of Rosannas scorn-tinged monologues (with each vowel stretched like an elastic band: “shaaat uuup”), theres something very false and strained about most of the writing.

These people dont interact with one another in a convincing way. They certainly dont behave like the kind of friends whod care to spend an evening together. Theres little sense of a shared past between them and they dont act like people who like each other or even know each other that well. Rosanna and Deanna pass continuous comment on Katies relationships, current and past, and treat Frank like their personal butler. Katie is less of a character than a series of excerpts from a self help book, her talk is all of “co-dependency” and “obsessive tendencies”; shes a cool counterpoint to Rosanna’s unrelenting acidity but this doesn’t really compensate for her lack of personality.

Grosso’s play is also stuffed with characters we never see – children, ex-partners, neighbours – to the point when it becomes tiresome to keep track of them all. This is most evident towards the end of the play where a point of catharsis is reached following the death of a character who, until then, has neither been seen nor mentioned. The resulting emotional crisis seems to come from nowhere and feels hollow as a result.

A playwright shouldnt have to hold the audiences hands and explain the motivation behind every action, but in a play like this there needs to be some shape, some visible path Grosso just steers his characters round in endless circles. At one point Deanna has a brief moment of revelation about her drinking habits the black outs, the soaked bed sheets, the gradual dawning that she might have a problem but a few moments later theyre all discussing online dating. Theres no shift in the dynamic between them, no sign that such a confession ever took place. If this is meant to be a commentary on denial, both of the addict and those around them, on the way people sometimes fail to notice the distress of those close to them, it fell well short.

Lesley Sharp is a fine actress and hers is at least a cohesive performance in that every gesture and swagger seems committed to making Rosanna as unlikeable as possible; there is not one chink of warmth or humour in her hard faade. Indira Varma seems very much miscast as Katie. For one thing she’s a glorious looking woman, even clad in shapeless grey sweats, so its jarring to hear the other two repeatedly refer to how haggard and worn shes looking when this is clearly anything but the case. This seems like a small point but it matters because one soon starts to wonder whether theyre trying to undermine her confidence or whether theyre actually concerned for her. Lisa Palfrey has a decent sense of comic timing as Deanna and her character provides some of the few genuine laughs (as oppose to the many awkward, uncertain ones). James Lance, as Frank, just seems rather distant from everything but perhaps thats just his response to having these two women in his home.

Katie and Franks flat, as presented in Ben Stones set, is very sleek, spacious and urban, with an abundance of exposed brick and a huge, double-doored American fridge. This seems oddly out of keeping with the world the characters appear to live in (apparently they all have homes on the same cul de sac and can easily pop into one another’s houses Frank doesnt even seem to require keys to do this).

The final scene sees Frank cleaning up after his guests have departed. Silence is an underused tool in the theatre and theres a lot that can be told through the way a character performs everyday activities; presumably this was meant to provide a note of hope, of healing, but Deborah Bruce’s production couldnt quite sell it, instead it was just five minutes of watching a man load a dishwasher.

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