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Review: Smoke (Southwark Playhouse, Borough)

Review by Sam Waite

When playwright Kim Davies set out to re-work Strindberg’s Miss Julie for a contemporary setting, she quickly decided to build around the structural bones of the piece rather than its actions or narrative. Davies crafted Smoke as a two-hander, making its London debut at the Southwark Playhouse. More accessible, if also more confrontational, to a modern audience in its exploration of power dynamics, some may find this raunchier play challenging. Many, though, will find it thought-provoking.

Real life husband and wife Oli Higginson and Meaghan Martin star as John and Julie, an intern for a wealthy artist and that same artist’s daughter respectively. The two meet properly for the first time in the kitchen during a BDSM party in New York City. He’s a decade older and more sexually experienced, but she could likely end his artistic career in a second. There’s not a moment where power is truly balanced between them.

Oli Higginson, himself,no stranger to Southwark Playhouse having starred in The Last Five Years there, gives John the right balance of confident sexuality and desperate professionalism. John increasingly wants Julie and admits to despising her father, but he will also realise suddenly how his career could be impacted should his boss find out what they’re doing. Higginson’s body language will quickly change – his almost feline, predatory movements replaced by a careful posture and genuine concern. He brings a ferocity to the play’s climactic ending, which is unsettling but still believably the result of human emotion, no small feat in this minimalist, performer-reliant production.

Meaghan Martin, perhaps best known for Disney’s Camp Rock, gives a perfectly calibrated performance, Julie’s confidence becoming more apparent in its falseness before fading into barely concealed fear. While the first twenty-or-so minutes give her little definition, the real challenge of Julie, in either Strindberg’s or Davies’ work, is to find the charm and likeability under the aimlessness and privilege that has allowed her to become so blasé about her own life. Martin proves to be more than up to this challenge, equal parts malleable and conniving, open to experience, but completely unaware of her own desires.

Instead of the fully presented kitchen of early US productions, Sami Fendall has opted for a bare-bones, metaphorical set. A refrigerator, the solitary piece of furnishing, lies on its side in a sandpit and is used to varying effectiveness as everything from a counter to part of Julie’s body. Fendall’s costuming is more immediately effective, John’s casual attire and Julie’s satin-y top and faux-leather trousers showing immediately that she is the newbie to a scene he’s deeply comfortable in.

Even though Kim Davies wrote Smoke nearly a decade ago, this London premiere feels collaborative with her text – co-directors Polina Kalinina and Júlia Levai opt to have less desirable content (the bulk of the smoking, all the sexual acts) represented through the staging itself. Where sand escaping through Martin’s fingers too quickly is Julie not inhaling properly when smoking, or Higginson slamming the fridge’s door is John pushing her to the ground, Kalinina and Levai’s presentation of these actions places greater emphasis on Davies’ text.

Thankfully the script holds up to a minimalist approach, with the dialogue keeping the power imbalances between the characters in clear focus. Important and deeply felt work is also provided by Asha Jennings-Grant, the production’s intimacy director, who has ensured not only that Higginson and Martin are at no risk physically or emotionally from their work but also that Kim Davies’ writing can be presented in full – with a delicate, nuanced approach to sexual violence and consent.

The changes in Rajiv Pattani’s lighting and the sudden silences in Jamie Lu’s subtle sound design help to solidify changes in mood as John and Julie alternate between seducing and offending one another. Pattani and Lu’s work is particularly powerful in the closing moments, where Julie is starkly lit and bass-heavy music never heard prior begins to play, suggesting the realities of the party finally replacing her vague, unrealised fantasy.

The sandpit and lack of literalisation may prove to be this production’s most divisive element – we are asked to imagine, or at least understand, the setting based entirely on what is said. The lack of more props – a knife being the only prominent one – could also be interpreted as diluting the themes. While I found the reliance on acting and metaphor a bold, exciting choice, others may be less enthused.

After this premiere at the Southwark Playhouse, I wouldn’t be surprised if further productions of Smoke were soon on the horizon. Bolstered by two exquisite performances, the content and staging may alienate some, but the strong characters and continued relevance will likely find it at least as many supporters as detractors.


Smoke plays at Southwark Playhouse, Borough until 25th February.

Photos by Lucy Hayees



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