Celebrating its world premiere at the Lyceum Theatre, Zinnie Harris’ The Scent of Roses is a story of family, relationships, and the lies we tell ourselves and one another.
On an unusually hot evening, Christopher (Peter Forbes) finds himself locked in his bedroom with his wife, Luci (Neve McIntosh), who wants to “have a conversation”. Trapped, Christopher searches for any excuse to avoid Luci’s questioning. Forbes and McIntosh are a brilliant pairing, their sparring seamlessly going from comical to cruel. Forbes is amusingly expressive as he tries to play the victim, while steely-faced McIntosh coolly waits for her husband to admit what he has done so she can tell him how she plans to punish him. However, it is eventually revealed that Luci has a secret of her own, and the events of that night have a rippling effect on those closest to them.
What follows is a play filled with acts of deception and desperation, as various characters seek to manipulate one another. With each scene, the secrets ensnaring the characters become darker, more complicated, and sometimes even absurd. The cast do an excellent job in bringing the complex characters to life. In particular, Saskia Ashdown skilfully faces the gruelling task of playing Sally, a young woman whose previous mistakes have come back to haunt her. Thankfully, Harris’ clever injection of cutting humour also helps to offset the play’s bleaker themes.
There is also Tom Piper’s deceptively straightforward set design. Starting as a bedroom, the set slowly splits as it expands with each scene, not only reflecting the character’s fractured relationships but also the sense of liberation that the truth can bring.
Without a doubt, there are some brilliant moments in this dark, often funny play. However, as a whole, The Scent of Roses suffers from the weight of its own complexity. The narrative veers on tiresome as more revelations are made – some in passing and some quickly brushed aside. The episodic nature means that some stories feel unfinished or even unnecessary. Generally, it’s as though Harris is looking for as many ways as to destabilise the audience’s understanding of what is going on, and as a result adds too many layers to the story.
Another way the production keeps the audience on edge is through the abrupt, uncomfortable scene transitions. The screeching electrical sound designed by Niroshini Thambar is not pleasant to hear, and doesn’t seem to connect with the action onstage.
Though it feels convoluted and uneven in places, The Scent of Roses ends on a high note. In the final scene, as we return to Luci and Christopher’s bedroom, gone are the walls that originally imprisoned them both. The open space, glowing in sunset colours, gives them the bittersweet release that they – and the audience – so desperately need.