From the novel by Scott McClanahan
Adapted and directed by Oliver Reese
The Coronet Theatre – until 17 December 2022
Hurtling towards December we may be, but there’s no doubt that Jonathan Slinger is delivering one of the performances of the year in Sarah this extraordinary fever dream of a monologue, distilled from Scott McClanahan’s acclaimed 2015 semi-autobiographical novel The Sarah Book. This booze-and-bile soaked tale of one man’s descent into alcoholic stupor and emotional and spiritual freefall as his marriage collapses (the titular Sarah is the wife who is leaving him, not altogether surprisingly given what we get to witness here) serves as a coruscating metaphor for the collapse of the great ‘American Dream’ and the result is frequently wince-inducing to watch, but also often grimly hilarious.
The adaptation and direction are by Berliner Ensemble artistic director Oliver Reese who provides a staging that starts out like a piece of stand-up comedy with Slinger’s Scott in a spotlight with a mic stand telling a funny story that quickly sours, then veers between chillingly still to toxically energised, but is seldom less than gripping. The black box setting is dressed only with a fridge, a few props and a couple of sticks of furniture, and the most prominent technical elements are a haunting country/rock musical underscore and Steffen Heinke’s acidic, malleable lighting.
The emphasis is, rightly, on Slinger and on McClanahan’s remarkable writing. Yet another privileged white man falling through the cracks in life is hardly original subject matter but the language McClanahan employs is muscular, evocative, poetic….and sometimes revolting. McClanahan doesn’t spare us, or his onstage counterpart, much, whether it’s in the jet-black-funny description of Mr King, the ancient, severely physically compromised rescue dog who gives Scott and Sarah the mange, or the heartrending sequence where a desperate, inebriated Scott is comforted by his own young daughter. Nothing is sugarcoated and there are moments where McClanahan offers peeks into the very darkest recesses of his imagination that seem calculated to offend and upset. It’s seldom less than gripping though.
That this tawdry tale feels like compulsive viewing rather than just an endless trawl through a troubled soul at the boundaries of reason and civility, is largely down to Jonathan Slinger in a powerhouse solo turn of such ferocious brilliance and technical dexterity that even the veins in his forehead seem to pop on cue. He never once tries to excuse Scott or make his behaviour more “acceptable” but instead invests him with a humour and battered humanity that draws the audience in even when, in real life, one’s instinct might be to run away screaming. He impressively navigates the tricky Virginian accent with ease, and manages the lightning fast switches between pathetic to swaggering to vaguely repellent with complete assurance. He’s utterly magnificent.
This is an uncomfortable ninety minutes of theatre but a rewarding one, and anybody who wants to see a masterclass of a performance at extremely close quarters should beat a path to Notting Hill immediately.