Smoke by Kim Davies is set at a New York sex party where consenting adults involve themselves in a range of activities that seem to excite, thrill, scare and entertain in equal measure. At times it feels as if the place is filled with contestants rather than willing participants, and with the shack shaking it is in the kitchen that Davies sets a fiery encounter between the thirty-something John (Oli Higginson), and twenty something Julie (Meaghan Martin).
In a way none of it matters, as truth and identity seem throwaway commodities here: it is all about action and power games. The power shifts and is wielded both physically and verbally, albeit nuanced, as words like ‘teach’, ‘train’, ‘fight’, ‘breathe’, all pepper the script.
Inspired thematically by Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Davies creates a heartless relationship based on self-gratification and emotional exploitation. Resting centre stage, between the seemingly sexual consenters, sits a white chest freezer, toppled over on its side and this serves as a suitable metaphor for the thawing of innocence and their chilled encounter. Design credit goes to Sami Fendell, who creates a monochrome vision in the main, his acting square filled with black sand and a white freezer. An overhang of arc lights flicker and twitch at key moments, and this nicely alerts the audience to take notice, pulling us out of the entertaining banter as we suddenly realise the inappropriate can easily become fair game, funny, slick and at worst, accepted.
Smoke echoes the disparity in status within Miss Julie. The characters here are transported to uptown New York, where an eager, struggling artist intern, working for a renowned artist, faces the reality that he needs a job more than he needs the distraction of the boss’s daughter who has a monied foundation to fall back on.
This two-hander is carried along with real flair by both Higginson and Martin, whose delivery is slick and varied. They never get bogged down with the content and keep their repartee light and quick-firing, all with a certain naturalness, so the subtext becomes more apparent and thought provoking. Co-directors Polina Kalinina and Julia Levai imaginatively and sensitively direct, creating a range of bear-pit encounters. The black sand is explored physically by the cast and is used to suggest cigarettes, body parts, erogenous zones. As clumps of sand trickle through their hands the whole becomes less, like their congress, and we see time itself wither away along with their feelings. The sand leaves its mark.
Lights flash and flicker (Rajiv Pattani) as the couple frolic with frantic tales and teases of sexual exploits. All edge towards boundaries of consent and access. Along the way sounds divert (courtesy of Jamie Lu) as phones create post-coital near misses. The phone calls serve as a snap back to reality and bring out ferocious divisions between the pair.
Ultimately, for all the sexual domination and exploration, it seems that words are sharper than any knife as Julie serves notice on her sexual predator making him realise his career is going nowhere – so status, money and a sense of entitlement still seem to prevail. The rest is a smoke screen.
Written by: Kim Davies
Co-directed by: Polina Kalinina and Júlia Levai
Set and costume design by: Sami Fendall
Lighting design by: Rajiv Pattani
Sound design by: Jamie Lu
Produced by: Katy Galloway Productions and 3hc
Smoke plays at Southwark Playhouse Borough until 25 February 2023. Further information and bookings can be found here.