Outside Edge are the only theatre company in the UK who focus on addiction in all of its forms. The company have produced over 50 shows in 20 years, many of which have been performed in treatment facilities and prisons. They also run free weekly workshops providing the opportunity for people affected by addiction to engage with theatre. Check-in/Check-out was devised and performed by Outside Edge’s main company of performers – members of which are all in recovery from substance misuse – and co-facilitated by artistic director Matt Steinberg & West End veteran Christopher Holt, who also stars.
As a student of applied theatre, I’ve grown familiar with the argument: aesthetic or instrument? When it comes to this type of work – in a nutshell, work which engages participants who may not usually interact with theatre in order to tackle and discuss a wide variety of social issues – I often feel conflicted about the line that is tread between the social merit of a piece and its theatrical appeal. It is sometimes argued that in applied theatre work, aesthetics are sacrificed; but it matters less than ‘regular’ theatre due to the potentially huge positive impact for the participants involved. Unfortunately, Check-in/Check-out left me no clearer on where this balance may be found.
The show opens in a clear support group setting. Six performers are arranged in a semi-circle of plastic chairs; the space is bare and starkly lit. Holt himself opens the show by coming to the front and greeting us with, “Hello my name is Chris and I’m an alcoholic” to which we are encouraged to respond. This feels like too obvious a choice to open a performance about addiction. Over the hour, the performers adopt a combination of storytelling, multi-roling, and confession to explore the messy world of substance abuse. We are shown how addiction can affect lives in ways that are all at once sad, shocking, and unexpectedly comic.
At one point, a performer says to his fellow company members, “let me paint you a picture”, before proceeding to paint an imaginary frame in the air around which the others gather. In turn, they point toward different times during their struggles with addiction in which they engaged in some particularly troubling behavior – including tearing a friend’s hair out during a drug-hazed fight, snorting seven grams of cocaine in one sitting, or waking up tied to the bonnet of a car with no memory of how you got there. These frank and honest testimonies serve to highlight the ways in which addiction can lead regular people down dark pathways. In a moment of particularly painful irony, one performer with a lengthy experience of the industry reveals that he was given his first line of cocaine over a decade ago in a backstage dressing room by a fellow, older actor. The stories are poignant and deserve to be heard.
For all of its integrity, though, Check-in/Check-out is not a perfect piece of theatre by any means. Transitions between moments feel clunky and disorganised, weighed down by the constant moving of chairs around the space. Towards the end, we are presented with brief musical renditions of I Get A Kick Out of You and Rehab that feel shoe-horned and obvious because of their lyrical content. At times I feel there are too many aspects of addiction attempting to be covered in a short space of time. However, the company have a tangible sense of comradery, and use their voices with sincerity and humour to address a topic that is still not openly discussed nearly enough. The work that Outside Edge do is undoubtedly important and even life-altering for those involved; but this would have been more evident had the piece been braver and clearer in its theatrical mission.
Check-in/Check-out is playing until 10 March. For more information and tickets, visit the VAULT Festival wesbite.