‘Ablutions’ at Soho Theatre

Ablutions is a study in both misanthropy and the absurdity of people. Eoin Slattery plays ‘you’ – a bartender in a sodden Los Angeles dive bar. He keeps the company of drunks, has-beens, the intolerable bar management, and a ghost. When things get too much he washes his hands under the tap and counts the scars he has accumulated from all the glass he’s broken on the job: ‘Ablutions, noun, a cleansing with water or liquid, especially as a religious ritual.’

The Fellswoop Theatre production is now in its spring run, after an acclaimed tour of Edinburgh Fringe last year. The play is based on a 2009 Patrick deWitt novel of same name, recounting anecdotes from a barman and charting his decline into alcoholism and divorce.

The cast consists of only three people: Fiona Mikel and Harry Humberstone perform, respectively, all female and all male roles, drifting in and out of the shadows as narrative requires. The two also provide the musical and vocal accompaniment, along with composer Ben Osborn on guitar. The soundtrack is mostly melancholy, contrasting with the artificial, neon buzz of a bar, where the majority of the play is set. The instruments are also used to foley the production, often with great creativity and effect.

The performers use no costume changes or props: a testament to their capabilities; the actors transform themselves at the tip of a hat and with little more than a change in accent or posture. The stage direction is also very well done, bringing to life a range of settings from the dark bar in which the narrator works, to the Grand Canyon, to which he travels in an attempt to purge himself of the LA sleaze. He peers into the warm sunset as he stands on the edge: ‘There’s too much dirt missing here,’ he says.

Ablutions is not a cautionary tale, or even a moralistic one. It does not glamorise alcoholism and the rejection of mainstream values, nor does is chastise the social underclass for its inability to pull itself together. The narrator is neither hero nor anti-hero: Slattery’s performance is reminiscent of Louis CK and his wry, no-bullshit social commentary. However, the play fails to find a balance between an anecdotal social commentary and a story of personal development. This affects the pacing and consistency of the third act, which might have otherwise been left on the same bittersweet note as the rest of the play.

Having said that, the play is fantastically funny: it is a particular brand of dark, cynical humour which pokes at the absurdity of people and the exasperation familiar to anyone who has ever worked in the service industry. An enjoyable and impressive performance, even if it falls slightly short of its potential.

Ablutions is performed until 22 February at:

Soho Theatre
21 Dean Street

Photo: Charley Murrell

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