Solo shows are a challenge: the actor has to be charismatic, the script has to be engaging. The danger of a solo show is self indulgence. On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco/Can Cause Death are two complimentary plays, the former by Chekhov, the latter a response from Alison Carr. It’s difficult to go wrong with Chekhov, but for all his wit, these are self indulgent monologues because they are essentially a husband and wife complaining about one another incessantly. If I wanted to listen to that then I’d get married. And I wouldn’t have to pay.
Nyukhin is an academic who, instead of giving a lecture about the harmful effects of smoking, talks about the harmful effects of his wife. In consequence, Carr’s Can Cause Death is his wife, Popova’s, less than complimentary eulogy for her dead husband. Carr’s monologue pays attention to the detail of Chekhov’s monologue, but essentially regurgitates from the female perspective. The difference between these writers is most evident in the lack of character Popova’s possesses next to Nyukhin. Popova’s speech is a formulaic response, occasionally barely amusing because she’ll mention something referred to in the previous monologue. We could assume from the title that Popova’s caused Nyukhin’s death, but the oh so exciting twist is that now that Nyukhin’s dead, all Popova has left is death. She was always disappointed by him, waiting for him, and now she only has longer to wait. It sounds like a Beckett play but lacking his engaging characters, humour, or existentialist musings. There’s quite simply nothing special about this pair of plays.
In the second play Gordon Russell dresses as the wife. I say the second, but it’s more like the third since Russell makes such a meal of getting dressed. I see no reason for him to get dressed on stage in graceful but laboured slow motion. He can’t be getting into character – Popova has far too little of it. Russell is obviously a measured, thoughtful actor. It was satisfying that he didn’t put on any silly falsetto when he played Popova, and dressing up as a Victorian widow is hardly a drag act. His style is understated and sympathetic and therefore felt better suited to Nyukhin’s character, but with the script he had, I defy anyone to engage an audience for 50 minutes with it.
I would say the costumes do enhance this piece. But elsewhere director Hugh Keegan just seems not to have bothered. A suitcase here, a picture of tobacco leaves there … there’s a lack of commitment to any vision that could make this double bill more three dimensional. The irony is, in Nyukhin’s monologue, he seems to just want someone to listen, but audiences don’t usually go to the theatre to have their ear bent off. Or both ears in the case of this double bill.
** – 2/5 stars
On The Harmful Effects Of Tobacco/Can Cause Death is playing at C Aqulia as part of the Edinburgh Festival until 27 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.