Cigarettes and Chocolate

Footnote Productions, Old Fire Station

Tuesday, February 15th - Saturday February 19th 2005
Daily: 7.30pm, plus Sat mat 2.30pm. £5.50 on Tue, then £8.50 (£6.50 concs)

Anthony Minghella's Cigarettes and Chocolate is a one act play showing until the nineteenth of February at the Old Fire Station Theatre. The play, at its most basic level, is about a woman named Gemma, who gives up speaking for Lent. The drama then evolves from the ways in which the people in her life react to her sudden silence. Of course, the longer her silence endures, the more the others run on and on, sometimes about utter trivialities, and sometimes about matters of profound importance. Frequently, indeed, triviality and profundity will be mixed in one breath.

The dramatis personae can be broadly divided into three groups. Group one is Gemma (Pia Fitzgerald), who spends the entire play sitting in the same armchair (she is always onstage, in shadow when the character is not present in a scene), with the rest of the world talking either about or to her. Group two are her immediate social circle: boyfriend Rob (Will Fysh), heavy-smoking best friend Lorna (Charlie Covell), not terribly secret admirer Alistair (Charles Booth), and the eighteen week pregnant Gail (George Hildick-Smith). These four characters get the lion's share of the dialogue, as they babble amongst themselves about Gemma's decision. The final group of characters are the unusually named Sample (Jack Hawkins) and Conception (Sophie Perks); like Gemma, these two characters are effectively silent - acting as sounding boards for the four characters from the main group. Unlike Gemma, their silence is taken entirely for granted.

The play is excellent, it has won awards and it deserves them. The dialogue (or, frequently, monologue) is sharp, but extremely naturalistic. People repeat themselves and run off at tangents in a distinctly human manner. The characters are entertaining, believable, and sympathetic (in, admittedly, sometimes idiosyncratic ways). The production is likewise excellent, the production values are first rate, and the cast are of a uniformly high standard. Although no one member of the cast stands out against the others in terms of quality, it should be noted that Pia Fitzgerald, as Gemma, performs strongly in an unusual role, and manages to make silence as expressive as speech.

In summary, this play is worth your time. For those who are just looking for an evening's entertainment, it is a sharply written, well performed, and rather funny play. For those looking for something a little more, it also raises some interesting questions about speech, silence, and words in general. It is perhaps ironic that an indictment of the fundamental limitations of spoken language should be made with such eloquence; that Minghella wrote a seventy minute play in order to say "we often speak much and say little". This irony, however, is part of the point of the play: verbal communication is at once impossibly flawed, and utterly vital.

Final mention should also be made of the music. Bach's Matthew Passion plays a prominent role in the piece, playing constantly in the background in Gemma's apartment. A rendition of extracts from the Passion will follow the Friday performance.

Daniel Hemmens, 15/02/05

Anthony Minghella endorses and amends Plato's rule: the one who feels does not speak, and the one who speaks does not feel. In Cigarettes and Chocolate we watch Gemma, a young and successful woman, withdrawing into silence for Lent. Her silence is apparently provoked by the emptiness and futility of ordinary, verbal communication. She tries to recover the profound in listening continuously to Bach's Matthew Passion. But her silence also causes some remarkable outbursts from her friends which, we are led to believe, would not have been possible otherwise. Gemma breaks her silence twice to address the audience and to explain the essentially Platonic (in the above sense) reasons for her action.

Although based on an interesting theoretical premise, the play itself is a disappointment. It fails to engage the viewer in the emotional life of its characters. Both the characters and their emotional problems are vaguely familiar from a zillion other books, plays, and films. They lack depth. For instance, the present reviewer failed to discern in Gail's monologue anything but a trivial complaint about obvious practical inconveniences accompanying pregnancy. The Christian symbolism embodied in the themes of Lent and the St Matthew Passion is more artificial and annoying than profound and illuminating. It appears to be completely foreign to the thoroughly secular existence of the play's characters. In fact a Philip Glass soundtrack would have made a more suitable musical counterpart of the play than Bach. The characters replace each other on the stage, the monologues start and finish, but there is no development: intellectually and aesthetically, at the end we are left in exactly the position we were after the first couple of minutes.

The production features some solid acting, most notably from Charlie Covell who plays Lorna. She gives an astonishingly natural performance of a trendy, confident, arrogant, but ultimately insecure modern woman. The present reviewer believes that a hole on Covell's stocking was an accident; but it might also be a clever directorial move intended to contrast that hole with Covell's formidable chin and immaculate smoking gestures. The leading role of Gemma is handled with charm and warmth by Pia Fitzgerald. Despite the silent nature of her role, Fitzgerald commands significant stage presence. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast are much less impressive. Their acting suffers from a misguided directorial decision to express emotions through shouting and excessive gesticulation. In fairness to the actors, their faults may well result from a desire to compensate for the perceived shallowness of those emotions. 

Summing up, there is no lack of effort or enthusiasm on the part of the director, Maya Foa, or the cast in making the play work. It must be regretted that such a mediocre piece was selected for the inaugural production of Footnote. They could do better by staking on an old, perhaps less familiar, horse - perhaps Goldoni, Schiller, or Gogol.