Originally commissioned for BBC Radio 4, Marcus Brigstocke writes and directs his debut play, The Red, a drama about family and addiction, based on his own recovery. The two-hander, featuring a real-life father and son acting duo, seeks to raise questions about the relationship we have to alcohol on a societal and personal level and largely succeeds in its mission.
The darkly comic play opens with our protagonist Benedict (Sam Alexander) entering his late father’s wine cellar on the day of his funeral. Benedict has been sober for 23 years and from the well-stocked cellar it’s clear that his father John (Bruce Alexander) was an enthusiastic wine collector (and drinker).
Benedict begins to read John’s last wishes aloud and discovers his dad would like for him to open and drink a long-treasured bottle of red wine to give him a proper send off. What follows is a lengthy dialogue between father and son debating whether he should drink the wine, an attempt to uncover the roots of Benedict’s reliance on alcohol and musings on the way society treats teetotallers.
The device of Benedict essentially having a conversation in his own head with his father in the room is much more interesting than an actor delivering an hour-long monologue on addiction, and the real-life relationship of the two actors adds a layer of authenticity to the piece. The wine cellar setting is simple, although a lacks subtlety (Benedict is literally surrounded by temptation). The lighting design by Damian Robertson deftly indicates tonal changes without being obtrusive.
Although the play is rooted in truth for Brigstocke, the hardest part of the piece for the audience to believe is that a loving father would willingly encourage his son to throw away more than two decades of sobriety when he’s not alive to deal with the fallout; that he would be so disbelieving about the nature and power of addiction to change, ruin or end lives that he would actively push his son off the wagon from beyond the grave. If you are unable to get past this conceit, then the drama will never truly resonate the way it’s meant to.
The audience members shuffle out after the show chatting about what they’ve seen, most clutching their own glass of booze in a plastic cup, blissfully ignorant of the irony. Will the drama change their attitudes to alcohol? Who knows? But at least The Red has started the conversation.