The Scent of Roses Royal Lyceum

The latest work from award winning playwright and director Zinnie Harris is a series of intersecting two handers, with echoes of la Ronde, that looks at the destructive effect of lies and miscommunication in relationships.

The opening scene shows the partners of a 21 year old marriage Luci (Neve Mcintosh) and Chris (Peter Forbes) as they have an average bat and ball conversation in their bedroom before their planned evening out for a steak dinner. Notably at this stage of the game, the characters are dressed in matching colours but after their playful sexual overtures to each other that lead to a session in bed, the mood changes dramatically along with the colour of Chris’s shirt. It’s at this point that he learns that his wife has taken the extreme step of locking the door so that they are forced to talk. Does the ploy work? No. What follows is destruction of more than the clothes that they mutually destroy in a clichéd post-divorce manner, as they descend to verbalised imagined cruel and mutual violence. Significantly, their dialogue remains stubbornly in an old groove as confrontations and revelations come to the fore.

Nerve jangling sounds, that don’t fail to meet their target each time, signal a new scene and the next one is even more unsettling. Caitlin (Leah Byrne), the highly disturbed 19 year old daughter of Luci and Chris, arrives unannounced, carrying a dead crow no less, at the home of her former teacher Sally (Saskia Ashdown) with whom she had had an inappropriate relationship while at school. Non-productive, non-progressive dialogue dominates this scene.

While the cast as a whole is impressive, it is Maureen Beattie’s appearance as Sally’s mother Helen that lights up the play. Beattie brings a vibrancy and honesty to her role as she faces her alcoholic daughter and, unlike the rest, shifts her attitude in a way that is painful, poignant and honest. The word ‘kindness’ is bandied about a lot these days, but, apart from in Helen, it is a quality absent in Harris’s characters. The mood is reflected in the shift in Tom Piper’s set and Ben Ormerod’s lighting at this point.

Human body language is such a tell and in the final scene, while Chris and Luci are having a calmer conversation, he sits with his back to her for much of it at this crucial point in their relationship as they essentially continue to talk to themselves. What we see is a mire of misery and lies with no redemption where Luci’s cancer issue very much takes a back seat.  

The sense of the play’s titleis alluded to in the first scene where Chris is concerned about goings on at work but is overtly mentioned late in the play when Helen and Chris have their chat on the bench and she describes a pervasive smell ‘like roses going off, just before you put them in the bin’. The mainly negative interaction that pervades the play suggests a different title.

Everyone lies and holds secrets to some extent – it is part of the human condition. The Scent of Roses reflects the uncertainty of our times when it’s difficult to know who or what to believe, but it also exposes the destructive and hopeless nature of absolute honesty.

Running time 1 hour 55 minutes (no interval)

Irene Brown

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