Blake Harrison, best known as the loveable dimwit Neil from The Inbetweeners, makes his West End debut in Rob Hayes' searingly grim Step 9 of (12), in which Harrison's Keith seeks forgiveness from his foster parents for the cruelties he put them through under the influence of alcohol. This cruel comedy dances engagingly on the borders of taste and makes for seat-squirming watching, although not always for the right reasons.
Keith is trying to turn his life around: after a lifetime of mistreating those around him with his vicious behaviour under the influence of various substances, he is looking to come clean with his victims in the ninth step of his rehabilitation programme - the search for forgiveness. As such, he has invited his foster parents Alan and Judith around to his grotty little flat for a frank, open discussion, but forgiveness isn't as easy to get as one might hope, especially with Keith's odd manner and the depths of his formerly reprehensible behaviour - and that Alan and Judith aren't the only ones he needs to seek forgiveness from.
The tone of the piece is one that Hayes is slowly becoming famous for - acerbic wit that strays from the beaten track into territories that make for very uncomfortable laughter. This isn't always enjoyable, especially when the laughter stops and you're socked in the teeth by an unexpected emotional punch, but the impact of it as a whole is striking - it's on the very borders of taste, and will no doubt elicit a plethora of responses, from the disgusted to the reverential.
In Step 9's case, the script doggedly throws up ridiculous and horrendous scenarios from Keith's past, and the frankness of Harrison's delivery plus the gruesome nature of his former actions combines the compelling and the hilarious effectively. Tom Attenborough must be applauded for finding a natural and watchable playing style for a script other directors would flounder with: for example, Keith's attempted rape of another character shouldn't be funny - but in between the emotional twang of admitting and apologising for the act as well as his final, crushing plea to the only person he could ever call 'Mum', the moments of comedy offer brief respite and lighten what could be too awful to bear.
Harrison, as well, does wonderfully as the conflicted Keith - there are more than a few hints of his Inbetweeners character in his delivery and performance, but the moments where he breaks from that to stronger and more forceful delivery are hints of greater things to come. Although his big, scraggly beard does less to hide his famous face and more to distract - it doesn't fit the character's attempts at being clean-cut, and just seems like a gimmick. Barry McCarthy and Wendy Nottingham have a little more trouble as the beleaguered foster parents - both have moments to shine and their interplay with Harrison is lovely, but their own relationship doesn't feel natural. It's a complex marriage, with affairs and work issues and the like, but it doesn't seem particularly believeable. Ben Dilloway, also making his West End debut, doesn't have a huge amount to do, but his last-act reveal gives him plenty of opportunity to show a well of emotional depth, naturally portrayed.
In the relatively tight confines of Studio 2, Francesca Reidy has designed a pleasingly simple set - Keith's grotty flat has just the right amount of trash and damage without being too obviously decrepit, and the various holes-in-the-wall are excellently used in a couple of set pieces. Although there is a greater problem here: Studio 2's tiny size and thrust staging does not make for easy watching, especially in a play which has most of the characters seated at angles for most of this piece - I found myself leaning perilously close to neighbours' laps in hopes of actually seeing the actors' faces! It's a venue in need of more physical staging, and it might not be the most fitting for this piece.
However, viewing troubles aside, this is another exciting play from a young playwright leaping from strength to strength. Hayes' original voice is a wonderful addition to the London theatre landscape, and it's particularly nice to see a young actor making his West End debut in so divisive a piece. Both of these young men have long careers ahead of them, and it's lovely to see them at their beginning. This play may divide audiences and critics, but the work behind it cannot be derided - I strongly recommend it.
Star of TV and film Blake Harrison hits the West End stage for the first time in this highly anticipated production of Step 9 (of 12) by Rob Hayes. It is directed by Tom Attenborough, who most recently directed Port Authority at Southwark Playhouse which was Time Out Critics' Choice. Step 9 (of 12) tells the story of Keith (Blake Harrison), an alcoholic who is apologising for his past. A lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse has given him a lot to apologise for - particularly to the two people who raised him from a child. But as the memories of violence, betrayal, lies and recrimination are raked to the surface, it becomes clear that past actions can have shocking repercussions in the present. Step 9 (of 12) examines society at its most darkest times in this new and provocative piece of theatre. Blake Harrison, is best known for playing Neil Sutherland in Channel 4's award winning series The Inbetweeners, which ran for 3 series and was subsequently made into a feature film in 2011.
Trafalgar Studios14 Whitehall
London Greater London United Kingdom SW1A 2DY
Duration: 1h 15m, no interval
Barry McCarthy, Blake Harrison & Wendy Nottingham © Mike Lidbetter