Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Cigarettes and Chocolate and Other Short Plays

Anthony Minghella
Old Bomb Theatre Company
York Theatre Royal Studio
(2010)

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I was party to a welcome occasion at York Theatre Royal last week, a timely revival of the late director Anthony Minghella's (The English Patient, Cold Mountain) writing by the Old Bomb Theatre Company. This excellently executed series of short dramas follows hot on the heels of their staging of Simon Stephens' On the Shore of the Wide World last spring, as well as the successful productions of Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Mamet's Oleanna.

Old Bomb's stated aim is to focus on 'intimate, challenging plays', in the hope that theatre can still have an 'explosive impact on people lives'. With this short run, their young crew of players may congratulate themselves on a job well done. The intimate atmosphere of the studio setting was the perfect spatial accompaniment to Minghella's tenderly muted chamber pieces, which explore a number of different genres: dance, monologue theatre and fleshed-out radio drama. All in all, this interesting melange of forms made for a palpable hit.

Cigarettes and Chocolate, directed by Paul Osborne, was the longest piece on offer, covering the first half of the programme until the interval. Previously an award-winning radio drama, this pleasingly hermetic ensemble adaptation concerns the wounded, self-imposed silence of suburbanite Gemma (company director Cecily Boys) and the consternation of her friends that this causes. An altruistic free-thinker with an ardour for Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, Gemma longs for clarity and beauty amidst the clamouring clutter of the everyday. A simply written and emotionally complex play, penned in lyrically quotidian fashion by Minghella, Cigarettes was realised here without fuss, and featured several cultured performances. Amongst these, Andy Curry's Rob (Gemma's exasperated lover) and Hannah Dee's Lorna (her treacherous friend and confidant) will survive long in my memory.

After the interval, two shorter vignettes were presented. The first of these, Hang Up, showcased more of Old Bomb's subtle wrangling with form. Directed by Boys, Hang Up was originally intended by Minghella as a purely voice-over narrative, allowing a choreographer to create a dance in response to the text. The quirk here is the inclusion of the characters as actors in the drama. He (Raphael J Richards) and She (Bryony Bryne) conduct their halting, stalled telephone conversation upstage, to the deft accompaniment of two free-forming dancers in the foreground. In spite of the, at times, kinetic synergy of the words and movement, the physical re-establishment of the speakers sometimes detracted from the flowing lambency of the dance. It still made for an invigorating experiment, however.

The last piece was a straight-up monologue named Days Like These, again directed by Osborne, and performed with wonderful, economic stoic style and grace by Margaret Hillier. Another introspective, searching study in loss, isolation and endurance, Days Like These features Hillier's Woman, an elderly armchair-bound widow, holding forth on time passed and time passing and time to come. The aged, accumulated wisdom of this character is pathos-packed, and provided a quietly lifting end to the evening's proceedings. Old Bomb is to be congratulated for seeking simple, effective solutions to some difficult problems of adaptation, for placing substance over style, and for rooting out some texts that must not remain neglected.

Reviewer: Jonathan Kerridge-Phipps