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The Big Smoke
Published on Sunday, 08 May 2011
3

3 stars

Upstairs at Three and Ten (venue website)
Theatre
6-8 May, 5:00pm-6:00pm; 10-11 May, 8:30pm-9:30pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Suitable for age 15+ only.

A solitary microphone, a solitary woman in a gown - and a sad, very solitary story. Sung right through in an almost operatic style, this is the tale of a young woman who comes to London in search of her future, and finds little more than an alcohol-drenched Hell. But it's darker than that, much darker, as repeated motifs of drowning and entombment are gradually revealed as the workings of a cruelly malfunctioning mind.

And that's what makes this play so difficult to review. As an articulation of the experience of depression, it's unimpeachably well-written and well-performed; and if you're one of the 25% of people with an episode of mental illness in your own past, the play will remind you of much which you may have begun to forget. It's filled with the tragic details which only cruel experience can reveal - the endless false dawns, the longing for escape, and the crises which can be triggered by the most banal of choices.

But if you don't know what it's like, is this play going to tell you? On that, I'm not so sure. For all she's going through, I didn't find the protagonist a particularly sympathetic character. The whole set-up puts her at a distance: few of us can naturally identify with the creative crisis of a high-flying painter. And since the narrative begins long after the demons descended, her back-story's revealed only in self-obsessive reminiscences, reflected by the distorting mirror of her troubled mind.

There are some genuinely witty moments to lift the tension, particularly when she talks about her hated ex-boyfriend Robert. And the characters she conjures up are wonderfully evoked: the school-mistressly art enthusiast, the so-posh lady serving the tea. I admired the physical performance too, economical yet expressive, and making that one microphone stand briefy the centre of the audience's whole world.

I've left till the end this work's most distinctive feature - the fact it's all done in a haunting, lamenting form of song. It's only in retrospect that I realise how perfectly the vocal style matches the tone of the piece, and the courage required to perform for an hour entirely a cappella mustn't be overlooked. But I'm very sorry, it just didn't work for me. It's a deeply challenging approach to a deeply challenging subject - and however much I wanted to connect with the tortured woman on stage, the gap it created was just too wide.

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FROM OUR ARCHIVES

These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2011.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.