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The Motherf**ker With the Hat

The Motherf**ker With the Hat at the Lyttelton, National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton The Motherf**ker With the Hat at the Lyttelton, National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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On the London tube posters, this latest National Theatre import from Broadway is called The Mother with the Hat, but there’s a word missing after mother, often used in the play, that turns it into something else entirely. That’s not the only provocation in a play that is by turns ferocious, electrifying, gripping and ultimately tender and forgiving.

The Motherfucker With the Hat (or Motherf**ker With the Hat, as the National is calling it) is about the flawed muddle we call life, and especially the muddle of using drugs and alcohol to help to numb the pain of living. It’s a play heavily influenced by the language of 12-step addiction programmes, with references to sponsors, slips and a higher power, and mantras such as ‘one day at a time’.

But you don’t need to have been on a 12-step course to understand the serious pain, bruising betrayals, agonising avoidance techniques and furious truth-telling that unfold over the course of this play about a newly rehabilitated drug dealer, recently out of prison after 22 months, trying to re-establish his life, get a job, stay clean and reignite his troubled relationship with his still-using junkie girlfriend.

Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose most recent play Between Riverside and Crazy earned him this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, writes with an insider’s knowledge, as David Mamet did for the one he portrayed in Glengarry Glen Ross, another contemporary American classic. This is just as keenly observed, and it elicits performances that are by turns bristling and brittle from a stunning ensemble cast, led by Desperate Housewives star Ricardo Chavira as Jackie and Flor De Liz Perez as his girlfriend, Veronica, both imported from the US, as is Yul Vazquez who reprises his Broadway role as Jackie’s cousin Julio.

Director Indhu Rubasingham orchestrates them and flawless UK cast actors Alec Newman (as Jackie’s sponsor Ralph) and Nathalie Armin (as Ralph’s girlfriend Victoria) in a production of devastating intensity, played out on Robert Jones’ atmospheric set of three separate apartments that glide in and out effortlessly beneath floating Manhattan fire escape staircases.

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A sobering play about trying to stay sober from addictions leaves the audience on a non-drug high