Review of ‘Smoke’: “A misty view”

Shame, temptation and regret merge together in this new play dealing with rough sexual relationships and the limits of consent. Guillermo Nazara reviews this original work currently playing at London’s Southwark Playhouse until the end of the month, to let us know what awaits amidst the fog and darkness of its eerie plot.

Dare to be, dare to do. Dare to live with the consequences. But what if those consequences aren’t something you asked for? Sexual consent has become one of the hottest topics for the past years – usually the mouthiest on the subject also being the most biased. Fiction and entertainment have not been ignorant to the trend – with films, series and, of course, plays dealing with a controversial matter that, far from lowering the smoke (no pun intended), has on some occasions aggravated the disparity between both sides of the opinion spectrum. Curiously enough (and without saying, a relief), nobody in their right mind would endorse rape (regardless of the victim’s gender). But the definition of such (as it is too with sexual harassment) seems to walk on a hazy line that gets more blurred as beliefs become more defined.

Last week, the Southwark Playhouse opened its studio to a new play exploring the bounds of sexual liberty. Penned by Kim Davies, the piece centers around two young teens, John (Oli Higginson) and Julie (Meaghan Martin), two strangers bumping into each other during a house party, who are keen to know more about each other. What starts as simple flirting gradually turns into something else – something unexpected, and maybe also undesired. The premise of the plotline is actually strong and sound: what commenced as mere seduction and naive playing evolves into a more serious and, perhaps, sinister plight. Nobody is forced to do anything they don’t want (it’s in fact quite the opposite), but it’s never reassured that any of it was actually what or how they wanted it to happen – at least, when it comes to one of them.

Suggesting peer pressure as the probable reason for the final outcome, the script succeeds at not feeling preachy but instead allowing the viewer to make up their own mind about what has happened. There’s no moral – or perhaps there is. But it’s completely up to the public (notwithstanding the author’s own convictions) to decide upon what’s occurred and, ultimately, if it was right or wrong. A clever and effective choice in intentions, it however fails when implementing the piece’s whole structure, as though the dialogues serve their purpose of constructing the necessary atmosphere of uncertainty and potential danger, the pacing is sadly affected by the a lack of movement and elements in the progression of the story. It’s as if we’re presented with a very intricate first act, but the second and third are condensed in two minutes – almost as if they were non-existent.

Directed by Polina Kalinina and Julia Levai, the cast is without a doubt the highest point of the entire production – both performances working in perfect tandem and exuding compelling chemistry throughout a realistic, intimate and satisfying rendition. With the entire single all-thru scene happening in the house’s kitchen, Sami Fendall’s design challenges the audience by creating a more psychological setting with the aim of transporting us to the play’s general vibe rather than a concrete space. Functional on some levels, there are some other moments when its symbolism seems a bit out of hand, perhaps because the selection of some of those signs should have been different. Rajiv Pattani’s lighting, nonetheless, establishes a better correlation through the entire course, blending the same subjective approach with proper narrative guide and a pinch of reality.

In a season where contentious issues seem to be a playwright’s fave, Smoke stands as a nice attempt at recounting a recurring topic with some degree of originality, especially when referring to its schemes. With homework to be done on its writing, though, there is anyway a sense of uniqueness in the take of its content, endowing it somehow with a voice and a place to claim as its own.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

All images credit to Lucy Hayes.

Smoke plays at London’s Southwark Playhouse from Monday to Saturday until 25 February. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Nazara

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