Too many cooks, so the saying goes, can spoil the broth. If they also mess around with a reliable recipe that has been tried and tested, the end result might not be as good as the original. It is a fate suffered by Kim Davies’ Smoke at The Southwark Playhouse (Borough).

More subdued and far less hard-hitting than might be expected

Davies specifically describes a naturalistic setting for this intense work: ‘a dark kitchen, clean and neat, in a large apartment in New York City’. She goes on to say: ‘Loud music, chatter, and a little ‘mood’ lighting stream in through a half-open door that leads to the rest of the apartment, where a noisy, cheerful house party is underway. The kitchen has a large window leading out to a fire escape’. In other words it’s a classic tenement of the type that features in so many films set in the Big Apple.

Compare that to Sami Fendall’s set. No doubt, it fits the design brief she was given, but it might be more at home in the Tate Modern. A black square frame delineates the ‘kitchen’. Within it the floor is covered in fine black sand, reminiscent of a volcanic beach in Lanzarote. Placed diagonally in on its side in the centre is a refrigerator, which, when opened later on spews dry ice. It doesn’t contain the fruit juice but does hide the knife, originally intended to be in a rucksack, and a goldfish swimming in a plastic bag of water.

The party is attended by BDSM aficionados with varying levels of experience and a variety of specialist interests, but their activities are taking place in other rooms. The kitchen is a quiet space and chill area and has only two people in it. First to enter is John (Oli Higginson). From hereon the black sand takes on symbolic roles. He should take a cigarette, from missing backpack, open the window, which is not part of the set, and blow the smoke out before texting messages on the phone, which he also doesn't carry. Instead, the pouring of sand through the fingers and air becomes a symbol for these missing elements as it does for represent sexual organs and activities represented in arrangements on the side of the fridge.

He is joined in the kitchen by Julie (Meaghan Martin), a privileged college dropout who has become fascinated by the prospect of exploring sadomasochism. In their tentative initial conversations it emerges that John is an intern in her wealthy father’s business. Bullied by him he lacks the courage to stand up to his unreasonable demands. That relationship highlights issues of power and control which adds to the tension in the fragile relationship John and Julie are developing. He is experienced on this scene; she naive. As they hesitantly try to ascertain each others interests, enquiry gives way to experimentation that challenges their levels of trust and consent. Things do not go well.

Higginson and Martin gradually raise the stakes in the game of cat and mouse piling on the tension as the situation develops, having clearly established their characters. The abstract elements built into the production, however, detract from the reality and if the situation, which makes it more subdued and far less hard-hitting than might be expected.

There is also the issue of how many people it takes to put on a seventy minute two-hander. To start, the play is co-directed by Júlia Levai and Polina Kalinina, with all the issues that raises. They are both experienced, but it’s hard not to imagine that greater clarity of vision would not have come from a single director. In addition they took on Intimacy Director: Asha Jennings-Grant and Dr. Kimberly Barker, a Creative Process Pyschology Consultant. Perhaps all these inputs and the multitudes of concerns these people explore explains how a degree of immediacy was lost in order to tread carefully.

A cigarette appears at the end and a cloud of smoke rises, but it is perhaps too little too late to bring the play back into the real world.

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The Blurb

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 S&M. 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. 

Starring Meaghan Martin (Never Not Once, Park Theatre; Camp Rock10 Things I Hate About You) and Oli Higginson (Netflix’s BridgertonThe Last Five Years, Southwark Playhouse & West End; LAVA, Soho Theatre).

SMOKE is a piercingly witty and sometimes painful exploration of gender, sexuality and desire. It reminds us that, similar to these imperfect characters, we still have much to learn.

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