I Promise I Shall Not Play Billiards

In the mid-19th Century, Madeleine Smith was accused of poisoning her lover, Pierre Emile L'Angelier. The jury found her neither innocent nor guilty, returning the uniquely Scottish verdict of “not proven”. Fiona McDonald explores the effect this had on Smith in her new play, brought to dignified life by Jen McGregor’s Tightlaced Theatre.

McDonald has identified a fascinating story and managed to construct a dramatic narrative that is almost entirely forgettable.

Smith (a quietly impressive Susanna Mulvihill) sits centre stage surrounded by possible aspects of her personality: an innocent girl who fell for L’Angelier; a cold calculating murderer; a socialite who wants to leave the past behind. They surround her, taunt her and tell their own deliberately contradictory stories that force us to come to our own verdict. All four performers acquit themselves well, accurately and convincingly showing the possible embodiments of Madeleine’s emotions – Debbie Cannon is particularly good as the conniving murderess that doesn’t care what others think of her, sneering and laughing with wild abandon. Mulvihill herself provides the highlight of the piece, her final monologue perfectly portraying a once respectable woman who has fallen slightly through the cracks of society.

That this final speech is the highlight isn’t surprising: Madeleine is, after all, the only genuine character that McDonald chooses to include. Personified emotions, however well acted, can only ever be singularities, fixed forms that lack the nuance of an actual person. All of their contributions follow the same pattern: a lengthy and quickly tiring monologue that don’t give the actors any opportunity to move beyond the emotions allocated to them, be it meekness or hysteria. Each of these monologues is preceded by a dance sequence that is often as stiff as the actors’ crinolines and tells us nothing new about Madeleine’s situation.

Perhaps the most disappointing factor here is that it could have been so much more innovative and interesting. McDonald has identified a fascinating story and managed to construct a dramatic narrative that is almost entirely forgettable. You can’t help but wonder at how much better it might have been as a one person show: all the complexity and humanity that Madeleine Smith undoubtedly possessed being portrayed by a single, complex human would have been a much more rewarding treatment of the story. As it is, although the individual performances are near faultless, the total is a good bit less their sum. “Not proven” is the ideal verdict. 

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The Blurb

Tightlaced Theatre presents Edinburgh playwright Fiona McDonald’s award-nominated play. It’s 1857. Madeleine Smith has just stood trial for her life, accused of poisoning her lover. Given the uniquely Scottish verdict of Not Proven, she is free from prison, but not from suspicion. Madeleine’s public and private personae gather to tell their stories, leaving the audience to reach their own conclusions about her innocence or guilt.

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