‘Cigarettes and Chocolate’ – as good as it sounds

Zoé Barnes 2 November 2007

A harsh spotlight illuminates an obnoxiously red telephone; the only point of colour in a drab room of muted beige furniture. The unanswered rings of the telephone leads to the answerphone of ‘Gemma’, who has undertaken a vow of silence. Cigarettes and Chocolate swiftly exposes its premise: the abuse of communication. The answerphone emits waves of garbled speech, each more pointless than the next, oppressing the consciousness like the light of morning upon a bleary hangover. We are tempted to pull a duvet over our heads, blanketing ourselves in the silence sought by ‘Gemma’.

Whitlum-Cooper’s decision to direct Anthony Minghella’s one act play is an intelligent one; Minghella’s own successes include The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Minghella’s script is itself remarkable, containing both shades of sardonic comedy and deepest pathos: all that is required is a strong performance to realise its dynamic potential. Fortunately, the cast of Cigarettes and Chocolate is up to the challenge. Each of the actors portrays their particular relationship with dialogue excellently, whether this be the involuntary outpouring of adoration accompanied by adorably geeky wheezing emitted by ‘Alistair’ (Joel Massey), or the inner complexities of ‘Lorna’ (Ellie Ross), who successfully combines the vapidity of sunbed sessions with the absolute cruelty of a joke about her mother’s suicide attempt: ‘She said she booked into a five-storey hotel’.

Jared Greene’s portrayal of ‘Gemma’s’ American boyfriend ‘Rob’ really steals the show. Greene’s performance is utterly memorable, not least due to his mind-bogglingly credible accent. ‘Rob’s’ erratic monologues represent the way in which communication is wasted: though he never discusses anything more substantial than clogs, porsches, or abandoned rubbish bags, he always captivates our attention and that of the characters around him.

Unfortuantely many of the performances overshadow that of ‘Gemma’ herself, whose silence is the catalyst for the action. In her state of half-illumination her presence is easily overlooked, as she tips her head back against the sofa lackadaisically. Similarly, the description of her refusal to speak as ‘aggressive’ by ‘Rob’ is not quite justified by her performance, as she oversteps the bounds of silence with reactionary laughter that often makes a noise. However, ‘Gemma’s’ silent personification against a cacophonous world is taxing, and the powerful execution of her monologues which bookend the play more than make up for anything lacking.

Rarely does an amateur production live up to the promise of its tagline, but Cigarettes and Chocolate really will have you wondering ‘what we’re doing with all these words anyway’. The fact that that its intense consideration of such an existential issue slots neatly into the space of an hour makes it all the more impressive, and highly deserving of the four star rating which it earns here.

Debbie Lennard