Scottish playwright and director Zinnie Harris’ The Scent of Roses begins with a wife who takes her husband hostage to finally have an honest conversation, locking him into their bedroom for more than a night. But this isn’t the whole story. In the five sections which follow we explore the interlocking lives of four pairs of people, each in their separate location, the first scene not so much sparking as giving the audience a way into a chain of conversations, obfuscations and revelations in this circle of connected lives.
The constantly reconstituted set designed by Tom Piper is marvellous, starting off angled to contrast the natural shape of the stage and subsequently offering us four to five different locations mostly from the same pieces of wall, floor and slanted ceiling, the last of which is the sole constant throughout the play. It is well complemented by the lighting designer by Ben Ormerod, which gives a sense of passing time as well as mood and transitions. The sound composed and designed by Niroshini Thambar attempts to do the same for the latter two, though less successfully, feeling often intrusive in its volume and choices.
The cast, Saskia Ashdown, Maureen Beattie, Leah Byrne, Peter Forbes and Neve McIntosh, all deliver great performances despite the script not really giving them much to make us care beyond the broadest of strokes in terms of mystery and basic humanity. Leah Byrne shines in particular, stealing the show thanks partly to a dead bird. (I could give you context but why?)
The script’s use of the characters as mouthpieces more than people coupled with the lack of information about them, we always start out with holds the show back however, particularly in the first and third sections, where one is simply left waiting to find out what the characters are refusing to tell each other.
There is humour, good writing and acting, but one is left wondering if there isn’t more in those sections due to the refusal to communicate than the actual drama and characters on offer. Zinnie Harris described the show’s genesis as the question: “What is happening to our internal compass when we are constantly surrounded by mistruths, bending of facts, spinning of stories and fake news? Have we lost sight of truth in the 21st century, and what happens to our ability to listen when the whole story is difficult to hear? The play is a response to all of this, set around a couple who have been hiding from each other for years.”
This may have been the writer/director’s point – this play definitely has something to say with regards to global warming and our hypocritical ways of addressing it and all the characters are, for various reasons, struggling to connect with each other “in a post-truth world”- but without more information to start us off and more of a thread to connect us to it, at its weakest this isn’t that far removed from hinging a plot on a wacky misunderstanding.
The Scent of Roses describes itself as a darkly funny new play about truths, lies, and how we tell them, but it lets itself down in the “how” and its lack of attention for the “who”. Overall, this is a very solid piece by talented people which, while offering much to admire and little to dislike, ultimately never quite answers the question of why we should care about it.
Playing until the 19th March, https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/the-scent-of-roses
Reviewer: Oliver Giggins.
Reviewed: 9th March 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★