Smile Club

Andrea Heaton and Adam Z Robinson
Red Ladder
CAST, Doncaster

Andrea Heaton’s one-woman show (co-written with Adam Z Robinson) takes an all-too-familiar social interaction and weaves from it a dystopian fiction which exaggerates and extrapolates in order to make trenchant points about the micro-aggressions daily inflicted on women.

Its inciting incident is an event at a train station, when a station employee insists that our narrator Lisa, already frazzled from a series of exhausting and demoralising events, gives him a smile before he’ll buzz her through the gates. Watching her train home heave out of view, and drained by one more version of ‘smile, love, it might never happen’, something in her snaps and she enacts violent revenge, the simple but well-crafted writing telling us just enough while leaving us in no doubt as to the events that followed.

From here, Lisa is inducted into ‘Smile Club’, a down-at-heel bunker forming part of a nationwide programme of reorientation for women who have ‘stepped out of line’ and who need to learn simply to smile, not make a fuss, and take male attention as a compliment.

The setting is indistinct near-future, though the aesthetic is retro-futuristic: more Fallout than Handmaid’s Tale, with its dials, flickering cathode ray screens and overall tatty beige Anderson shelter vibe. The design, by Emma Williams, is superb in conjuring this world, and surprisingly fully realised for a storytelling show of this kind. It’s both claustrophobic and flexible, and supported by lighting and video by Adam Foley and sound by Ed Heaton.

The narrative is punctuated by world-building video interludes created by Foley and Heaton, mostly comprising snippets of adverts or training videos for Smile Club, flickering and glitching, and backed by warbling, tinny bossanova Muzak. This generates a surreal and slightly comic background to the more depressing tale at the heart of the show. And all is marshalled well by director Rod Dixon, who builds the pace effectively, and Heaton herself, who differentiates scenes and characters with a clarity of physicality and well-chosen vocal markers.

When Lisa first arrives at Smile Club, the writing and performance is at its strongest, and her experience of being ‘welcomed’ by a faceless digital voice achieves a blend of comedy and sinister undertones which the text never quite manages again. Disappointingly, it seemed to me that some elements of the dystopian world are set up seemingly clearly, only to be subsequently dropped. For instance, early on it’s established that conversations are monitored and swearing is strictly verboten, but later Lisa drops a number of swear words into conversation with no consequence.

Likewise, the timeframe ended up seeming a little blurry; I thought there was an intimation that Lisa was one of the first to be sent to Smile Club, but later interactions seem to suggest they’d been established for at least ten years prior to the start of the fiction. Perhaps there are rationales for these decisions that are clear to the writing team, but in the finest sci-fi, the world is given solidity through its internal coherence, and actions come loaded with well-defined stakes.

Later, there are moments which become slightly too on the nose, and I preferred being allowed to draw my own conclusions and parallels. A barking UKIPpy caricature whom Lisa happens to overhear during visiting hours is made such a grotesque, and given dialogue consisting only of such a string of clichéd points of view, that it got in the way of what was a genuinely important observation about the systemic ways patriarchy undermines those who dare attempt to budge it.

But this 75-minute piece crafted its Orwellian tale well, and moreover Heaton’s performance is gripping throughout, with moments of great comedy and intensity. In her and Robinson’s writing, though some of it is a little underprocessed, there are also clearsighted observations and turns of phrase that set the teeth on edge with their fearful familiarity. Its finer points might benefit from further tuning, but the broader aim is true.

Reviewer: Mark Smith