Cigarettes & Chocolate

Jack Belloli 5 February 2010

ADC Theatre Lateshow – 11.00pm Wed 3rd-Sat 6th February


When you choose to stage a play that’s all about the main character’s refusal to speak, you’re inevitably going to face some difficulties; Anthony Minghella’s script throws in as many as possible. And, despite a few effective moments and interesting directorial approaches, there’s a sense that the team behind ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate’ haven’t managed to overcome them.

One of the biggest challenges is the fact that Gemma (Tamzin Merchant), who has given up speaking for Lent, nevertheless begins and ends the play with a monologue. Having given the audience a way into her character before taking her vow, there’s a temptation for the actress to put less effort into her subsequent non-verbal communication – and Merchant succumbs too often. Her silence tends towards a sequence of reordered mannerisms.

When Merchant speaks, her success is just as mixed. As the play ends, her suggestion to the audience ‘Don’t speak for a day’ doesn’t carry the force of an instruction, and her explanations of what being silent means have an overwrought sincerity. While this may be true to the character’s ‘right-on’ North London hyperbolics, it would be more interesting to hear a subtler interpretation of Minghella’s words. However, she captures the panic that comes with returning to speech magnificently, giving the sort of speech Godot’s Lucky would’ve made had he grown up in Lambeth.

The rapid ‘neither rhyme nor reason’ of this outburst would have been more cathartic if it offered a change of pace from the rest of the play. When Alistair (Theo Morton) asks his Argentinian cleaner ‘Am I talking too fast?’ it resonates for all the wrong reasons. It seems to be director Tadhgh Barwell O’Connor’s attempt to show how futile and monstrous language can be, how silence only leads to more noise, but it means that the play’s many jokes and economic revelation of plot details are lost in a whirl of Vietnamese babies and hotels in Eastbourne. And, when Gemma’s silence forces the bubbly Gail (Argyro Nicolaou) to reveal an awkward secret, the pitch doesn’t increase as it needs to. The one exception is during Ali’s turn to confront Gemma: easily the most touching scene in the play, and directed with a clear focus on gesture, it shows just how much can be accomplished in moments of stillness.

Of course, it’s possible that this speed of delivery was just a pre-emptive case of first-night nerves: most of the cast visibly settled down as the play went on. In particular, Jack Hudson, who began with an oddly mechanical delivery loosened up to carry the play.

The ability for the production to improve as it goes along will hopefully be transposed onto the run as a whole. I was only able to judge this show on the basis of a fairly frantic ‘tech-dress’. It will no doubt begin to hit its stride when nerves die down, and an audience arrives to laugh at the jokes and provide a focal point for the cast’s delivery. But it’ll still need some impressive alchemy to make this silence golden.

Jack Belloli