Review: Rum and Vodka

Tristram Fane Saunders 23 May 2012

Rum and Vodka

Corpus Mainshow, 7om, until Sat 26 May

I like a good accent. They’re hard to get right, and nearly impossible to maintain over 90 minutes, but Jacob Shepherd’s Dublin lilt is note-perfect. Greeting each audience member at the (shockingly empty) Corpus Playroom in character, Shepherd is completely at ease in his role – a mercy, given the difficulty of the part.

Written by Conor ‘best-playwright-of-his-generation’ McPherson at the age of 20, Rum and Vodka is rarely staged, partly due to the demands it makes on the actor. The play is an extended confessional monologue, delivered by a 23-year-old Dubliner in the grips of a booze-fuelled midlife crisis (though he seems unlikely to make it as far as 46). Having married a one-night stand after knocking her up at a party, three years later he finds himself equipped with the full adult toolkit of wife, children, meaningless office job and crippling alcoholism. In Rum and Vodka we watch his life disintegrate over the course of a particularly eventful long weekend. It’s bleak, but it’s also very funny – albeit in a faintly unnerving, tragic kind of way.

The writing (except for one slightly disappointing joke about ‘Bjorn Again’) is excellent, and the protagonist’s descent is frighteningly realistic. His regular order (‘a pint and a short’) becomes a kind of reassuring mantra, always followed by the same verdict (‘I felt a lot better’) with an appalling kind of queasy optimism. We don’t learn his name (Michael) until halfway through the play and, like him; we are surprised that anyone would ask. Though Michael is clearly a wreck, his friends are worse – strange but wholly believable grotesques, sketched out vividly enough to make this reviewer glad we don’t actually get to meet them. Shepherd handles one co-drinker’s back-story with impressive delicacy, almost as ill at ease in telling us as we are in listening. The disturbing, improbable anecdote (involving a car-crash, motiveless grave-digging, and suggestions of mental disease) is punctuated by occasional twitches and nervous smiles, before it comes to an abrupt halt; “like I said, he’s bonkers.” It takes complete assurance to make something like this work, and Shepherd has it. The script could easily be handled clumsily – there are plenty of opportunities for over-emoting – but Shepherd is restrained and convincing throughout, providing the perfect conduit for McPherson’s writing. Michael is an unpleasant character (at one point claiming to feel no more responsibility for his sexual conduct than for the Boer War) but Shepherd successfully negotiates the balancing act of making him flawed enough to be credible, but sympathetic enough to watch. Buy yourself a ticket, and watch him unravel while you still can.

Tristram Fane Saunders