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Step 9 (Of 12)

Published 8 May 2012

Actor Blake Harrison might be best known for playing the intellectually challenged Neil in comedy hit The Inbetweeners, but his West End debut sees a dramatic, sinister alteration.

In Step 9 (Of 12) he plays recovering alcoholic Keith, who, released from prison and following the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 step programme, has arrived at the point where he must seek forgiveness for his previous actions, the magnitude of which only becomes apparent as the play unfolds.

When Alan and Judith appear, we don’t know exactly who they are, and they know nothing about the torturous evening of dredging up the most hurtful memories that lays in store.

My, is it torturous; while Wendy Nottingham’s stony-faced Judith, whose hatred burns just behind her eyes, clearly does not want to be there, Barry McCarthy’s pliable Alan feels something is owed and Harrison’s Keith offers a polished veneer hiding a rotten, disturbing reality. When stress finally pushes him to crack, his presence is chilling.

Writer Rob Hayes uses barely more than an hour to bring the troubling tale to its conclusion, but utilises that time to raise a raft of questions, leaving them to sit temptingly like an unopened bottle of whiskey. How much does alcohol affect actions and how much is it just the alcoholic’s own nature? How much do those around such a character consciously or subconsciously affect their actions? Are English teachers completely cut off from the real world?

The fine line between tragedy and comedy is walked with the skill of an award-winning acrobat, yet the equally slim boundary between good and bad taste is flouted in a heartbeat, as comedy is attempted around arguably the most inappropriate of topics, resulting in more cringing than the entire back catalogue of Ricky Gervais’s work.

That is, of course, the realm of dark comedy – and this is as dark and nasty as it gets – but Frankie Boyle might think twice before making some of the gags in Hayes’s script.

Leaving the theatre, I felt uneasy, and not just because I was heading straight for the bar. Harrison’s central performance is truly disturbing, particularly his cold, calculated evaluation of the power of knives. I needed a stiff drink to cope with the memory. Is that in bad taste?

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