Down With My Demons is centred around five alcoholics in the dead-end South Carolina town of West Sicuta. Despite the fact that they are all attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, it soon becomes apparent that everyone knows everyone else’s past. When a storm sees them trapped in the building, tensions rise as secrets spill and the characters come closer to learning what happened on a fateful fishing trip ten years ago.
The theatrical experience was immersive from the off. Upon entering the BT, every audience member was handed a ‘service sheet’ with a list of ‘today’s hymns’, which also doubled up as a programme. They were then ushered into their seats by Pastor Matthew Talbot (Benjamin Ashton), who bustled around the altar anxiously until the play began. The set was cleverly designed, with seating on three sides of the studio making the audience an extended part of the circle of alcoholics. With the gentle breeze from the air-con, the strains of ‘Here I am, Lord’ and the fluttering of the American flag in the background, I felt as if I really could have been in a Baptist church in South Carolina. During the thunderstorm scene, as the studio was plunged into pitch darkness, being lost in the dark along with the characters and hearing only their panicked voices led a real sense of immediacy to the performance.
The standard of acting was excellent, and I was particularly impressed by Arthur Wotton and Benjamin Ashton’s ability to get under the skin of ostensibly unlikeable characters (an intolerant white fisherman and a self-righteous pastor) and make them sympathetic and believable. The varying dynamics between the characters were consistently well-observed. Even the way they sat in their chairs revealed something about their personalities: Jael (Anushka Shah), the respectable pillar of the community, was composed and upright, while Delilah (Serena Pennant), a downtrodden single mother, slumped in her seat and showed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the pastor’s suggestions.
The cast generally sustained convincing, albeit geographically disparate, southern American accents (they ranged from yokel to Southern belle to Texan cowboy). In some places the script was rather predictable; characters took it in turns to deliver monologues about their deepest secrets as the lighting shifted from warm to cold, and (surprise surprise) Samson and Delilah were sleeping together. Though I think we were supposed to see things from the perspective of Vincent (Robbie Fraser), the half-Mexican teacher who had always felt like an outsider in the community, I began to find his continual preaching and refusal to get along with the other characters annoying. However, I think this was rather the fault of the script than the actor.
Overall, the play was engaging throughout, and certainly explored some interesting themes, with the low reliance on technology lending it an almost timeless quality. Thanks to the unusually intimate staging and in-depth characterisation, I felt as if I had almost become a part of this close-knit American community, so different from our own, for a small time. It was an enjoyable – if not exactly uplifting – break from the Oxford bubble.