Written by (and starring) Jenn Robbins, The Smoking Boy is the story of an upper middle class family from New Haven, Connecticut, in 1917 amidst America’s entry into the Great War. The son is sent to fight; the daughter experiences a crisis of faith; the father’s absence becomes more and more palpable; and the mother does nothing but note her experiences and turmoil in her beloved journal, becoming increasingly insular and removed from her relations.
The plot has potential, although it is not entirely original. The First World War - and war generally - has been the subject of numerous plays examining the destruction of the family unit and the conflict’s impact on those at the battlefront. The Smoking Boy does very little to introduce anything new to the huge catalogue of plays about the war or match the successes of previous war plays.
For such a potentially emotionally vibrant plot, the performance is platitudinous and we never really feel the threat of war or fear the destruction of the family. This is the result of unimpressive writing, directing and performance. Perplexingly, Robbins’ writing deals either in broad brush strokes of emotion, or self-indulgent, detailed analysis, both of which are laborious in their delivery. Long emotional speeches are tautologous and rife with unsubtle and inelegant symbolism masquerading as poetry. Direction is unimaginative and seems to be confined to where people stand and when they speak, rather than real character development (surprising given that the writer is part of the cast). Performances by the majority of the cast are not exciting and never display the emotional distress of a family on the precipice of war, even though the subject matter is rich with opportunity. There are rare glimpses of real palpable emotion, but both of these arise from support characters Mrs. Dickie and Mr. Acorn; all other attempts by the core cast are ham-fisted and insincere.
This overlong production is also poorly resolved and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Rifts that have supposedly plagued the family for over a year are concluded within the same final five minutes of the production, indicating that this was a speedy escape for a writer tired of dragging out the plot. There is also a definite lack of style. Neither poetic, comedic, tragic, or realistic, the show seems to be undecided in its execution. There are a plethora of ‘rehearsal room ideas’ that should have stayed in rehearsals as they cloud the performance’s form, such as moments of unnatural synchronised movement between characters that, although they may incite laughter, negate the emotional quality or realism of the play’s happenings.
If you are interested in theatre about the war or domestic turmoil there are probably better shows than The Smoking Boy at this year’s Fringe to sate your appetite.