A safe space for tough topics

Sally Marlow and Hilary Brodsky review 'Gin for Breakfast' at the Tristan Bates Theatre.

There are few theatres that will take a risk on new writing. Intimate studio spaces can be found at the Royal Court and the Soho, Hampstead and National Theatres in which new work is tested in a supportive and immersive environment, particularly important for writing that explores subjects such as mental health. Since 1994 the Tristan Bates Theatre in London has also been facilitating and showcasing new writing. You file in to a safe space, which is so small you feel like you’re not only spectating, you’re also part of the play. More than usual, you’re on the side of the playwright, cast and crew.

Gin for Breakfast, a new work by Jess Moore, opens with the female protagonist, Jen, at her annual birthday party, hosted by her parents. Jen is 29, and there’s a sense this isn’t a celebration of her birthday at all. Against a background of her parents’ house, her parents’ music and her parents’ friends, she and Robbie have taken refuge in the garden, with balloons and gin. As they get steadily more drunk, it becomes obvious that they both are in pain. Jen has a glittering career as corporate finance lawyer in the city, but is in an unsatisfactory relationship and wants to be doing good works at the UN. Robbie is hoping for a record deal while pulling pints and, the audience suspects, wants a relationship with Jen. Although they are more articulate than most drunk people as they discuss life, the universe and everything, the inescapable fact is that although alcohol loosens tongues, people are not terribly interesting when they are intoxicated. When the audience is sober, this provides a real challenge for the playwright and the actors.

Fast forward a year, and another birthday party for Jen, and she and Robbie are again on the edges. Something has shifted – they are rowing. However, it’s not clear what has shifted, or why. Robbie has come close to a record deal, but it hasn’t worked out. Jen is still doing corporate deals, and her sometime boyfriend has turned up to her party with someone less ‘hot’ (her word). Perhaps they are taking their increasing disappointments out on each other. Perhaps their feelings for each other are too unbalanced – she wants answers from him about what makes her unhappy, whereas he still wants a relationship. It’s all unspoken and, again, obscured by alcohol.  

Flash forward another year as Robbie is lit up, then the stage is plunged into blackness. Lights up again, and Robbie is unconscious in a hospital bed, with Jen visiting. We learn that he’s tried to call Jen on her birthday, then attempted suicide. Jen is consumed by guilt: ‘What did you do, Robbie?’

In the final scene Robbie is in an unnamed place, perhaps a mental health or rehab facility, and Jen arrives, taking refuge in the birthday ritual, with cake and bitter lemon, and news that she has changed jobs and is working for a charity. Robbie is sober for the first time in the play, and, also for the first time, he’s disengaged from Jen. Both have moved on, but away from each other.

Gin for Breakfast didn’t quite feel like a strong enough version of a real story, although there were bits that showed genuine insight into alcohol addiction and depression, with honesty and courage. The Tristan Bates Theatre is almost a therapeutic space in which this could happen.

- Reviewed by Sally Marlow, who is Associate Editor for Culture at The Psychologist and Public Engagement Fellow at King’s College London, and Hilary Brodsky, a former corporate lawyer, now a community mediator and a trustee of two charities

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