Theatre

Powerless @ Barons Court Theatre, London



cast list
Jenny Harrold
Eugene Washington
Travis Oliver
Philip Leamon
Alexa Asjes
Philippa Hames
Pano Masti

directed by
Bronwen Carr

A new play about addiction and recovery, Powerless is billed as “a tragi-comedy that challenges the questions and questions the answers.” And Alice Kahrmann’s tale of dependency and depression certainly has both its moments of tragedy and comedy, though the former appears to be the dominant force behind the writing. Staged by the Auroralight Theatre Company, the play does indeed pose some interesting questions though it doesn’t always provide satisfactory answers.

Powerless opens with Nina (Jenny Harrold) sitting at the centre of the small stage and reciting the Twelve Steps. An attractive young poet, Nina is part of an addicts’ recovery programme overseen by the charismatic Morgan. Kahrmann has some real fun with these initial twelve step sessions, satirising the therapy talk, the slogans and the mantras. God is never intentionally referred to, instead the characters discuss surrendering themselves to a Higher Power, and there’s a wonderful moment when fellow addict Johnny is in the middle of an emotional outpouring and the group leader suddenly holds up a little sign saying ‘We love you, but your time’s up.’

This is about as lighthearted as the play gets; Kahrmann never lets the audience forget that addiction is a miserable condition that swallows people’s lives. Both Nina and Johnny are haunted by the recent suicide of their friend Serena and they blame Morgan’s failure to acknowledge the deterioration in her mental health. They make a pact to go it alone, away from the group, supporting each other in their recovery.

Jenny Harrold does a fantastic job as Nina, her voice forever on the verge of tears. She’s especially strong in the volatile scenes between Nina and her boyfriend Daniel (Travis Oliver) as he continually belittles her pain and constantly accuses her of being a Plath wannabe. As Johnny, Philip Leamon gives an equally compelling performance, endearingly rumpled and just managing to keep things on the right side of manic, and as the enigmatic Morgan, Eugene Washington provides much necessary presence. Bronwen Carr’s direction makes full use of the small but versatile space, in the intimate vaulted cellar beneath the Curtains Up Pub, heightening the intensity and the claustrophobia of the already emotionally charged scenes.

Kahrmann has chosen to break up the action with snippets of Nina’s poetry. But though these poetic interludes provide a necessary break from the play’s intensity, they also prove emotionally distancing to the audience. Addiction is by its nature a highly selfish state and it’s sometimes difficult to engage with these characters already, especially when you’re given little information about how they came to be in the place they’re in. However in the twelve step confessional sessions the snatches of backstory provided by the supporting characters are peppered with interesting voices and narrative potential, it would have been fascinating to see some of these developed further.

In concentrating solely on Nina, Powerless limits itself as a piece of theatre, and while there is some strong, intelligent writing and acting on display, the demands made on the audience’s empathy are sometimes just too great.



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