REVIEW: Like Smoke in Here and Norma Strong (The Basement)

Two plays for the price of one. Absurd!

Absurd Choices [by James Wenley]

Two plays for the price of one. Absurd!

The Basement’s upstairs Studio space has really proven itself this year as an accessible venue where curious audiences can seek out work from left field. This week two new works Like Smoke in Here by Ben Anderson, and Norma Strong by Elyse Brock, are featured together as an ‘absurdist double bill’.

Absurdism was one of the major theatre movements of the 20th Century, but as Anderson remarks in his program, these days you “Don’t get much of it ‘round here”, instead the conventions have been absorbed into the wider theatre vocabulary. Norma Strong is only loosely absurdist, a positioning perhaps more to do with the programming than the form: an otherwise conventional and familiar drama about a writer having an affair with one Norma Strong, except Norma just happens to be a fictional character in a novel he is writing. Strong is an invisible figure on the stage, imbued by writer Clint (Mathew Norton) in a similar vein to James Stewart’s giant rabbit Harvey. An absurd idea for sure, but otherwise totally normal.

Like Smoke in Here plays more clearly within an absurdist world. Flora is apparently trapped in a house which is burning down – not quickly, but very, very slowly (which unfortunately the insurance doesn’t cover you see). The actors are frozen in situ as we enter the Studio –there’s a woman holding a gun, a child, a man in a hospital bed, and another woman under a table. I don’t actually see this woman until she pops up in the maelstrom of action – the gun goes off, knocking down a blank painting, the son is told to keep licking sugar off his hands. Strangely, the gun is treated rather innocuously by the two women Flora (Jo Clark) and Margo (Jessie Graham).  Margo hints in asides that she wishes her friend was dead. Flora feverishly scrubs the table legs with lemons and exclaims “Why is everybody in my life completely crazy?”

What, exactly, is going on? Anderson doesn’t leave us in the dark for very long. By the end of the first scene, the ‘logic’ of the world has been established: the house is slowly burning, the water has been turned off, thus lemon juice is the answer, and the man in the hospital bed is her husband Jimmy (Anthony Towler), who has caught the ‘disease’ of slow burning fire. Which all makes total sense, in a way, maybe the play won’t be as strange as first thought?

The play is hampered by the performances of the two leads Clark and Graham. They play their relationship with a detachment – a ‘slap’ is half-hearted, unconvincing. This may have been a directorial and thematic choice, creating a lethargic atmosphere, but it doesn’t do anything for our engagement. Crucically, it doesn’t feel like Clark and Graham have invested and believe in the world they are acting in, and therefore, neither do we.

Clark’s Flora is a problematic character – stubbornly refusing to do anything to help her situation, she is complaining and whining from the start. Much of the dialogue repeats her criticism and anguish about what is happening around her: “Why was I dropped into this awful existence just to feel this?”. Again, I grant a thematic choice, but the one-note character has nowhere to go and turns me off her situation.

The spread of the fire is conveyed through the clever device of actors ripping large sheets of paper on the walls during each scene transition. It is visual flairs like this that I have enjoyed in previous Anderson plays (This Kitchen is not imaginary), but in this play Anderson seems to have unnecessarily restricted what makes his style exciting. Like Smoke is an effective exercise in the absurdist form with a black comedy streak, and the conclusion is bleak.  For me, it seems to be a parable of inertia and exploring the psyche of victim-hood, but the play fundamentally does not balance its thematic concerns with a sustained dramatic interest.

The actors in Norma Strong absolutely believe in the world of their play and the fictional character of Strong, a stark contrast in tone and energy after interval. Strong is Elyse Brock’s first play, an amusing sketch on the impact of the ‘other woman’ on the marriage between Clint and Mary (Gina Timberlake).

Strong too begins with a cliché filled argument about Clint’s infidelity (as a writer, Mary hoped he’d be “more original”), but Mary’s tirade is stopped in her tracks as Clint introduces thin air as Norma. Has her husband gone mad?

Norton delivers a sensitive performance, hinting at more under the surface to have turned to this character. Timberlake carries our sympathies and the character’s full range extremely well, including the comic possibilities of acknowledging Norma on the suggestion of a Psychiatrist (Maxine Cunliffe). The actors and Director Jacinta Scadden maintain a psychological truth to their character which keeps the play grounded, important amongst the design choice to use stacks of chairs as different set pieces. This feature was practical but odd, seemingly an attempt at creating an ‘absurd’ playing space, but without apparent justification.

Both plays struggle to sustain their plots over their respective hours. In pairing these works together in one evening, there was a missed opportunity to present shorter, punchier one acts. Strong in particular contained extra characters that barely featured: their son Lukas, and two groan-worthy writer colleagues who added little to the proceedings, instead, a tighter focus on the central trio, with the input of the psychiatrist would have been dramatically desirable.

Both plays feel like stops in the road for these two playwrights as they continue to experiment and evolve.

Like Smoke in Here and Norma Strong are presented as a Double Bill at The Basement Studio until 10th November. More details see The Basement.

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Reynald Castaneda

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