Like most people, I think, I often have mixed feelings about a show I see. Occasionally, though it is rare, there will be a production where absolutely everything is perfect. From the concept to the story, script, set, lighting, sound, direction and performance, the show leaves nothing to be desired. On the whole, though, most productions are a combination of good and bad and it’s the balance of these two elements that will ultimately decide how I feel. Smoke at the Southwark Playhouse is such a play.
The story takes place at a sex party in New York where, as various consenting adults get up to who knows what in the rooms, two people find themselves alone in the kitchen. John (Oli Higginson) is a thirty-something photography intern who has been to these parties before while twenty-something WASP Julie (Meaghan Martin) is attending her first. Although John initially doesn’t realise it, there is already a connection between him and Julie out in the real world, and it is this connection that leads to them exploring their lives and desires in a manner that becomes increasingly emotional and physical as the night goes on.
Written by Kim Davies, Smoke is an adaptation of August Strindberg’s ground-breaking play, Miss Julie, and is an intriguing story. The way the relationship between Julie and John grows over the course of the show feels quite natural in places. In fact, there are times it seems too normal given the circumstances of their meeting and the activity going on out of sight around them. However, I didn’t particularly like the way the story played out in the end. Also, to my mind, there were various inconsistencies in John’s character. Particularly in some of his actions which for someone who was meant to be a ‘Het Dom’ did not always fit in with the traditional idea of what he should be. For example, would he really stop the activity and break the mood to pop over the road for a packet of cigarettes?
However, whilst not happy with the story, I cannot praise the performances high enough. Both Higginson and Martin were excellent. The fact I never warmed to Julie as a person is definitely down to the performance which in the words of TikTok trends “show us you’re an entitled, spoilt little rich girl without telling us you’re an entitled, spoilt little rich girl” and Martin did it perfectly. Higginson’s John was the perfect foil and was a lovely mixture of nice and creepy at the same time. I’m not sure if I liked him but I did understand some if not all of his motivation. Great performances all round. Together the two of them work superbly as they take their characters from shy introductions to flirty banter and ultimately to areas neither expected to be going – or did they, it was a BDSM party after all?
Sami Fendall’s set was fascinating. A large box in the round, filled with black sound and with an upturned freezer in the middle, served as the kitchen and was well used by the Directors Polina Kalinina and Júlia Levai to keep the story moving while ensuring everyone had a good view of the characters. Although I wasn’t sure initially, the black sand was a masterstroke. Used to illustrate everything from smoking cigarettes to body slapping and sexual encounters, the sand slipping through their hands seemed to indicate a real sense of the fragility and temporary nature of their grasp on the present. The whole area was illuminated by some light panels directly above – designed by Rajiv Pattani – which flicker and twitch, providing a clue to those members of the audience that are not keeping up that a key moment is happening.
Overall, I was honestly not that keen on Smoke. The story just didn’t work for me on a number of levels and the subject matter made me feel more uncomfortable than I expected. Thankfully, the superb performances did hold my attention and kept my interest in the show right up until the final moment at the end, when the lights went down. To summarise, for me, Smoke is a not-so-great story saved by the excellent skill of the two actors.
Review by Terry Eastham
SMOKE by Kim Davies is a gripping modern adaptation of August Strindberg’s ground-breaking play, Miss Julie. This sharp and provocative piece makes its London Premiere in an all-new production directed by powerhouse female team Polina Kalinina and Júlia Levai.
The story takes place in early 2010s New York City at a BDSM party. Julie (Meaghan Martin) is a privileged college dropout dipping her toes into the world of BDSM. She meets John (Oli Higginson), a cynical struggling artist willing to act as her guide. Their whirlwind encounter starts as a sexually-charged game of cat and mouse, but as they get to know each other these seemingly self-possessed characters have their boundaries and notions of consent challenged. The consequences are irreparable and unsettling.
CAST: Oli Higginson and Meaghan Martin
Polina Kalinina – CO-DIRECTOR
Júlia Levai – CO-DIRECTOR
Sami Fendall – SET AND COSTUME DESIGNER
Rajiv Pattani – LIGHTING DESIGNER
Jamie Lu – SOUND DESIGNER
Asha-Jennings Grant – INTIMACY DIRECTOR
Misha Miah – PRODUCTION MANAGER
May Curtiss – STAGE MANAGER
Justin Williams – GRAPHIC DESIGNER
Emma Martin – MARKETING
Kate Morley PR – PR
Lana Nemchenko – POSTER PHOTOGRAPHY
Katy Galloway Productions and 3hc present
by Kim Davies
1 – 25 FEB 2023