Alcohol plays a crucial role in the way we socialise, relax, grieve and celebrate. But at what point does casual drinking become something more worrying, and do those affected know how to seek help? That's the issue that Human Story Theatre have sought to explore in DRY, currently setting off on its UK tour. The production aims to make people reconsider their drinking habits, where more traditional health warnings have failed. And the blend of theatre and awareness campaign is an extremely effective one: DRY is a play that will spark discussion and provoke thought, but most importantly, it signposts the support services that are available to those affected by alcoholism.
The hour-long play revolves around James and Ellen Wilson, and their teenage daughter Chloe. James and Ellen are partial to a glass of wine or two after a long day, or a nightcap after a dinner party - tellingly, their guests never seem to want to stay for one last drink. There is early banter about hiding bottles in neighbours' recycling bins, and embarrassing exchanges at supermarket checkouts. Wine buff James is an exuberant, jocular character, quick to riff off millennial fads or go on mocking political tirades, while Ellen completes the double act, reining in her husband and getting conversation back on track.
Paul Ansdell and Bryonie Pritchard do excellently to capture the couple's well-worn repartee, bringing real animation to dinner party scenes in which the staging is minimal and they are the only actors. The duo also make their characters relatable and recognisable: we all know people who have similar traits to the characters in the play – maybe at times we’ve exhibited those traits ourselves - and in this sense the play has managed to capture elements of common experience with pinpoint accuracy.
But the moments of lightness are only a precursor to what comes later. While Ellen, a dietician, manages to curb her drinking, James ups his intake, justifying his habit as part of his epicurean lifestyle. His gags and political references soon form part of his boorish drunkenness, with Ellen increasingly forced to cover up for James’ behaviour. Watching James' slow slide into alcoholism is stomach-churningly horrific - Ansdell is superb here - as his drinking chips away at his family relationships, his professional life as an English teacher, even his control of his bodily functions.
Voiceless and neglected, Chloe (Rachel Watson) epitomises what can happen to children in households affected by alcoholism. She rarely, if ever, interacts with her parents, who argue over her life choices and future without ever giving her the love and support she needs. She is a talented cellist, and her music seems almost to imitate the effects of alcohol: as her parents drink, her chords are mellifluous and soothing, while at other points, jarring, discordant sounds mimic the psychological disarray of a hangover. It's an audacious theatrical technique, and one that perhaps distracts from the play's realism elsewhere. Similarly audacious, and yet much more compelling, is a monologue from Ellen that melds eulogy, health warnings and drinks advertising into an oppressive cacophony.
There are, thankfully, some signs of hope and redemption at the close - the play, and the Q&A session that follows each performance, are designed to promote positive life changes. The Q&A, more than an addendum, is crucial viewing, and a reminder of the extraordinary array of support organisations available to help those in need, whether it be Turning Point, Al-Anon or Samaritans. Discussion ranged from what concerned friends or family can do to ensure that those struggling with alcohol access support, to what employers and line managers need to look out for in the workplace. As a recent graduate and as someone who has witnessed some of the problems created by drinking culture at university, it was refreshing to learn that support organisations welcome people of any age.
There's so much going on in DRY - even its throwaway moments draw attention to other themes and issues. At one point Ellen wants James to do something other than sit drinking at home. "Go and have a pint with Tom" she suggests, before realising her mistake - a telling reminder of the ubiquity of alcohol and the way that seeing friends and drinking are so often inseparable. Comprehensively tackling alcoholism and all of its impacts, this is hard-hitting, challenging theatre. See the play, talk about it, listen to others - DRY's human story is one that will resonate with any audience.