Marcus Brigstocke’s drama begins disarmingly: Benedict reads a “last bequest” letter from his father, whose wake takes place upstairs while Benedict is in the cellar surrounded by 948 bottles of his dad’s fine wines.
That last detail becomes key when we learn that Benedict is a recovering alcoholic who was an addict by 17 but now, at 43, has been sober for half his lifetime. His father’s letter instructs him to open up an expensive bottle and drink to their relationship.
The play comprises an imagined conversation between Benedict (Sam Alexander) and the ghost of his father (played by the actor’s father, Bruce Alexander). The last request is at once a celebration of life, a devilish temptation and an affront, given Benedict’s history of addiction.
It leads to a dark night of the soul, although there is a warm repartee between father and son along the way. The chemistry between the actors is natural, and while it is clear that the father is an inner voice, his role turns more cajoling and manipulative to reflect the self-sabotaging thoughts of an addict: “I think you’d be OK,” he says to Benedict.
Having premiered on BBC Radio 4 in 2017, The Red has all the markings of an audio play. It is confined to a single conversation, with little movement between characters, although the cellar occasionally doubles up as an imaginary Alcoholics Anonymous circle. As staged and streamed by Original Theater Company, under the direction of Charlotte Peters, it is an achievement that it does not feel static.
It is also gripping, even if it ultimately feels like a chamber piece with the potential to go deeper. Grief is loosely tied with the wish to drink and this might have been better explored, along with some other threads of conversation that are dropped too quickly. One potentially interesting theme is Benedict’s AA circle and the necessary submission to a “higher power” as part of the 12-step “brand”. Another lost moment comes when the father asks Benedict why he became a teenage alcoholic: “Did we make you one, your mother and I?” he wonders. But this question is not explored either.
It means that the drama feels limited, its characterisation and story smaller than it might have been. But it is excellent at unpicking the psychology of addiction. Brigstocke has spoken of his former drink and food addictions, and Benedict’s character incorporates both a sense of self-control and the insecurity of tipping back into a self-destructive life at any moment. It feels an immensely timely work, during the pandemic, when addictions may have been inflamed. “The disease of addiction never goes away,” reflects Benedict, who compares it to a sleeping tiger, only emerging stronger when it is stirred awake.
We feel the tension as Benedict uncorks the bottle and almost swoons at the sight of the wine. The “will he or won’t he” drama of whether he will take that first, possibly deadly sip goes around in circles yet still us gripped until the last, uncertain moments.