red wine 1978

Sam Alexander as Ben with his real father Bruce. Picture: Tom Grace

The Red

Original Theatre Company online


Benedict sits in his father’s extremely well stocked and extensive wine cellar, settling down for a father and son heart to heart, talking of life, the past, relationships, theirs in particular, and wine.

Hardly the stuff of gripping theatre – except for one simple thing, this is the day of Benedict’s father’s funeral, he has just been buried, and the meeting, the conversation, even the feelings are all in Benedict’s mind.

Not that Benedict is a traveller on the wrong side of sanity, mind. He is a successful 40 something, a scion of an obviously well-off family, with a good job, a partner, children and, outwardly, at least, as balanced as any of us are likely to get.

Yet, underlying his comfortable life, hiding in the shadows, he has his demons, the worst of them he sees as like a sleeping tiger waiting to pounce at any sign of weakness. This is a demon with the of power of life and death over him, for Benedict is an alcoholic - recovering, but still an alcoholic.

And at its essence The Red is a play about that one terrible demon, written by Marcus Brigstocke, best known as a stand-up comedian and actor, less well known for being in rehab at the age of 17 and bedevilled as a teen by drink and then drugs – and like Ben a recovering addict with a wine loving father.

The problem for addicts, be it alcohol, drugs or even smoking, is that you never become a non-addict, a recovering addict is the best you will ever get, still an addict, but just one who is just not drinking, smoking, snorting, mainlining or whatever. The disease is still there, it is just that it is being managed.

Ben has not touched a drop for 25 years. The tremors, the cravings, the desperation receded years ago, but the demons never leave, that daily nag, or as Ben’s father puts it, a fear that just one drink will be ok against a fear that just one drink won’t be.

Sam Alexander is superb as Ben, the son reflecting on the death of his father with affection and good humour for a life well lived. A father who loved wine, loved sharing and drinking it, becoming one of those people who became funnier, more delightful when he had enjoyed drinking it too much. 

He is in the cellar at the behest of his father, who has left him a letter detailing how Ben should distribute the extensive wine cellar between himself and his brother and sister. There is also an additional request.

In the rows of racks of fine wine, the letter states, is a bottle of 1978 Chateau Lafite – around £600 a bottle these days - the year of Ben’s birth, bought for him by his father, Ben’s name written on the label in pencil. This is The Red, the eponymous object of the title.

It was bought with the intention that it would be drunk with Ben at some significant moment in his life, or, failing that, just to be drunk together to enjoy being father and son. It is left to Ben to enjoy . . . but only if he wants to.

The bottle now creates a dilemma. Honour thy father by raising a glass or honour a quarter century of daily battles with the sleeping tiger.

The play is given added poignancy by Sam’s real father, Bruce, playing Ben’s jolly, friendly and loving father – we know that is how he must have been in life, or at least that is how Ben sees him in his personal battle between the fine bottle of wine, bought in his name, and the demons waiting to welcome him back.

Not that this is a play full of angst, there is no seductive temptation or get thee behind me Satan moments, just the normal, routine predicament recovering addicts have to face up to each and every day.

And there is humour and wit, a loving relationship between father and son who enjoy, or perhaps more accurately, enjoyed each other’s company, life had been an adventure with laughter never far away.

We learn plenty about Ben and his father, but slinking through the shadows beside them is a hungry predator, the tiger, stalking, watching, waiting for the one mistake to pounce. What harm could it do to have one drink, special occasion, and all that, to honour a dead father’s memory?

That is the question facing Ben as we leave him, alone, to find the answer.

opening the bottle 

Ben opens the bottle; is it a gesture or a release of demons?

The acting is exceptional. Two handers are not the easiest, particularly where the most dramatic thing to happen is taking a bottle from a rack, but Sam and Bruce hold your interest and attention throughout with their tales of growing up, of family, of Ben’s late mother, of wine and Ben’s father’s love of it, of Sam’s appreciation of it and what it represents.

Advised to sell his share of the bottles he suggests he will keep them for serving to friends, parties and as a legacy for his own children. Even a long-time recovering alcoholic of 25 years standing can see wine and what it represents is worth more than mere money.

The writing has empathy, humanity, and a credibility that perhaps only experience can provide, along with gentle humour, shining a light in to the  dark shadows recovering addicts walk through each day.

Original Theatre have found the knack of creating online versions of plays that are still essentially stage versions. It has simply incorporated cinematography into stagecraft so that you are never watching a film but a play where the stage is your TV or screen.

The setting (Alex Marker) is simple, a wine cellar with a few wine cases on the floor – posh wines come in well made, wooden boxes, rather then the six hole cardboard affairs, 25 per cent off for half a dozen bottles, at the local supermarket.

Cinema (filming and editing Tristan Shepherd) allows the background to change in an instant to reflect a church hall AA meeting, “My name is Ben, I am an Alcoholic”, and back again to racks of cabernet sauvignons, merlots, vintage ports and champagnes.

It allows close ups and changes of angles, the highlighting of details, which all add to the staging rather than suggest film. The result is a theatrical experience where the best seat in the house is yours.

The result here is an absorbing play with its moments of sadness, of drama and of humour, at the end it is even moving as Ben comes to terms with his father’s death and his own vulnerability amid the choice he faces.

The Red, directed by Charlotte Peters is available online, watch on demand, to 23.59 on 16-06-22, priced at £20.

Roger Clarke


Original Theatre Online has other productions on line including the superb Into the Night.

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