The tobacco-ad jingles fade to silence, and Smoking Ban instantly flares into life. This is a play that jumps in at the deep end: with a strangely compelling pitch for the benefits of smoking, delivered by a sassy spokeswoman from a fictional cigarette company. This is Carol, an Anglo-American PR specialist, whose career path has led her into one of the most hated industries on Earth. And over the next seventy-five minutes, we learn a lot more of Carol’s story – who she is, how she arrived here, and the surprising impact tobacco has had on her life.
I’ll lay it on the line here – Kate Goodfellow’s solo performance as Carol is among the finest I’ve seen at this or any Fringe. She has impeccable command of a range of accents, and she’s capable of some vocal gymnastics too, adding plenty of interest to what in lesser hands might have seemed a dangerously wordy script. She draws out the biting humour shot through her monologue, whether she’s parodying the ludicrous concept of a tobacco-company health officer or just sharing an American’s view of what it’s like to be a Brit. And then, in a matter of seconds, she can pull the mood right down again – with a quiet moment of introspection or a touchingly vulnerable aside, reminding us that this play is built on some deeply serious themes.
Though Goodfellow portrays several characters, she’s most striking when she transforms into Carol’s boss and lover, the hideously lascivious Jerry. Jerry is truly malevolent – a personification of all that’s wrong about tobacco – but he’s a rounded, wounded character too, perhaps as much in his product’s thrall as the public are in his. It’s to the credit of both actor and playwright that he never quite becomes a cartoon baddie, always retaining an undertone of genuine menace which slowly builds towards a frightening final showdown.
Carol’s monologue often takes surprising turns, revealing her to be a far more nuanced woman than her brash opening scene suggests. Among the more unexpected plot twists is the revelation that her ancestors were Native American, a fact which (it later emerges) has a particular significance in the tobacco trade. Playwright Jonathan Brown delivers a masterclass here, confidently spinning numerous seemingly-disconnected threads before slowly drawing them together again. It’s tightly-scripted, tightly-plotted and filled with layers of meaning. And if you sneak out 15 minutes before the end, you’ll have watched a five-star show.
But, alas. At the exact moment I expected the curtain to fall, there’s a very strange incursion from a new character, who declaims ex cathedra a series of points already made far more eloquently in the scenes which have come before. And that’s followed by a seemingly-endless expository monologue from Carol, wrapping up the plot by describing a chain of events that occasionally borders on the absurd. It’s tough feedback to give, because I realise these scenes are precisely what Brown was always building towards, but I honestly think the play would be far better if he simply cut them.
It’s a shame the elegant subtlety which defines the start of the play doesn’t last quite until the end. But I can still heartily recommend Smoking Ban, a thoughtfully-woven work which packs in a lot of well-targeted humour, as well. And as for Kate Goodfellow – she looks to be the class of actor with potential to set the world aflame.