Review by Isabel Zakharova
Addiction is perhaps one of the most misunderstood illnesses. Those suffering from addiction are often judged and stigmatised against, and few get the opportunity to tell their own story. Before the Meeting turns that status quo on its head, and places four AA group members centre-stage. It’s a story full of honesty, humour and heartbreak. But perhaps most importantly, it’s one which humanises its characters.
Written by Adam Bock (A Small Fire; The Receptionist) and directed by Kim Hardwick (Dead Skin; Wild Thing), Before the Meeting takes place in the basement of a church somewhere in the USA. It’s here that Gail, Nicole, Ron and Tim regularly convene to set up for their AA meetings. Though at first the characters seem to have little in common, it’s through their shared struggles and mutual quest for sobriety that they’ve formed a sort of family. Gail is the authoritative, no-nonsense matriarch who bickers constantly with fretful but well-meaning Ron, and acts like an almost mother figure to quick-witted but sensitive Nicole. Tim is the sheepish newcomer who slowly but surely asserts his belonging to the group. Each character seems to have found a comfortable rhythm to their path to recovery, but during the course of the play we gain more and more insight into each of their wounded histories.
Being a play which is both rich in dialogue and strongly character-driven, naturally its success relies heavily on the strength of its cast. And each performer takes on this task beautifully. Jane Phegan displays strong emotion in her role as Gail, evoking empathy for people struggling with addiction. Alex Malone shines as Nicole, with her natural sense of humour and excellent physicality. Tim McGarry brings a calming sense of charm and tenderness to his role as Ron, while Tim Walker skilfully balances shyness and strength in his portrayal of Tim. Ariadne Sgouros – who plays Gail’s estranged daughter, Angela – also absolutely bears mentioning. While she is only on stage for a short time, she makes a huge impression, and raises the tension to extreme heights. Although the actors’ American accents could certainly use some work, it’s the cast’s talent and versatility which really make an impact. Importantly, each character is truly three-dimensional and deeply complex.
One of the most interesting aspects of this play is its unconventional structure. The first half of the play felt much like watching a sitcom, in part due to a highly detailed production design (Martin Kinnane) almost resembling a film set, as well as a joke-rich script played for laughs. We get to know the characters through little ‘splices of life’ – or episodes – separated by quick lighting changes. Just as I began to wonder whether the play was nothing more than a comedy, the tone changes abruptly. The light-hearted episodic style is quickly replaced by a long, distressing and revealing monologue delivered by Gail. It’s truly a testament to Phegan’s acting that despite the length of this section, my attention didn’t waver. Ultimately, it was refreshing to see a play unafraid of shaking up theatre norms and surprising the audience.
This is a production that entertains, inspires and shocks all at once. It’s an important work because it gives a voice to those who are often shunned or misunderstood. However, audiences hoping for a neat and satisfying ending should be warned that Before the Meeting will not deliver such closure. But in a play deeply rooted in honesty and realism, that is only to be expected.
Before the Meeting plays at the Seymour Centre until Saturday 11th June.
Image Credit: Danielle Lyonne