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Smoke at Southwark Playhouse – review

The 'volcanic' two-hander runs until 25 February

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Meaghan Martin and Oli Higginson in Smoke
© Lucy Hayes

The most striking recurring image in Smoke is of the two actors playing in, and getting covered with, what looks like volcanic ash. Polina Kalinina and Júlia Levai's taut, spare staging has the audience seated on all four sides of a low box, a playpen almost, filled with the stuff. It hangs in the air, scatters across the floor, pours down in cascades and rivulets on the actors' bodies and hipsterish clothes… If at first, this serves as an artful metaphor for the act of smoking (one character bums a cigarette off the other but instead of lighting up, quantities of black powder are trickled from hand to hand), by the end of the 75-minute performance, it feels as though it has come to signify carnal knowledge, loss of innocence, even depravity.

Volcanic is as good a word as any to describe Kim Davies's 2014 play, a sexed-up, strung-out two-hander that riffs on Strindberg's Miss Julie but which, with its sadomasochistic powerplay overtones and eye-watering explicitness, is equally reminiscent of, respectively, David Ives's Venus In Fur and Patrick Marber's Closer. Not that Davies's text, which turns Count's daughter Julie and manservant Jean into modern Manhattanites Julie and John, she the privileged student offspring of an internationally acclaimed photographer and he the intern of said artist, is derivative. Divided into brief, staccato scenes, it's bracingly witty, tart and unnerving, and although it deviates significantly from the Strindberg, it's way more satisfying than Polly Stenham's 2018 Julie for the National, which recast the title character as a coke-snorting Hampstead party girl intent on seducing her rich-as-Croesus father's chauffeur.

This Julie and John meet while cooling off in the kitchen (the only other object in Sami Fendall's strikingly stark set is a derelict refrigerator) at a Harlem bondage party. They flirt, hedge around each other with shared observations about the BDSM scene, and, then, arguably even more dangerously, critique Julie's father, a man so demanding he thinks nothing of calling his employee in the early hours of the morning with a random thought. The stylised movement and absence of props, apart from a knife, a goldfish in a plastic orb, and all that powdered darkness, serves to draw us into the disturbing heart of this provocative chamber piece, over which the suggestion of erotic promise hovers like a wreath of smoke. One of the many fascinating things about Kalinina and Levai's work here, in tandem with Davies's cracking writing and a truly remarkable cast, is how such an abstract presentation makes so vivid and specific these characters and the worlds they inhabit.

It soon becomes clear that Davies is exploring more than mere erotica as the piece moves into the tricky joint terrains of coercion and consent, and what started out as playful, sexy banter becomes authentically sinister action, before turning into something downright nasty. John performs an act of such violation on Julie that it takes the breath away, and there is ambiguity over her willingness to participate. If the staging were less stylised and more realistic, the script could potentially be accused of gratuitous sensationalism but ingeniously, Kalinina, Levai and the invaluable intimacy director Asha Jennings-Grant keep us a few steps removed, although what we do get to witness is plenty graphic enough. There then follows a verbal worm-turning of such scabrous viciousness that it's likely to ruin the evening for anybody suffering from fragile masculinity.

These aren't spoilers: anyone familiar with Strindberg's classic will have an idea of what to expect. But what might surprise, and what makes Smoke rise from thought-provoking shocker to unmissable event, is the quality of the acting. Meaghan Martin and Oli Higginson are astonishing. Tender, brutal and utterly convincing, the measured sensuality of their movements contrasting intriguingly with line deliveries so naturalistic they sound like improvisation, this stunning pair mine Davies's text for all its dark humour and ambiguity. They also achieve a combustible sexual chemistry. Higginson brilliantly conveys John's vacillation between carnal predator and fragile loser alongside a queasy realisation that he is not nearly as in charge of this situation as he thought he was. Martin compellingly suggests that beneath Julie's urbane exterior cowers a bewildered child damaged by an absent father figure, and gets a chilling solo final moment where the abstract gives way to the literal, suggesting that, whatever comes next, this young woman will never be the same again.

Smoke assuredly won't be for everyone: it's strong meat that will give you a lot to chew over afterwards, but the staging is a thing of terse wonder, and Higginson and Martin are delivering two of the most exciting performances on any current London stage.