Brighton Fringe 2014
The Friends Meeting House must be one of the most unpromising venues in Brighton to put on a show. It’s a biggish space, slight echoes making it sound a bit hollow, and all the lighting has to come from the back, behind the audience, meaning that the performers can only be lit flatly from the front. To me, it always feels a bit – cold.
But none of that mattered with ‘Smoking Ban’. Kate Goodfellow dominated the space in this one-woman show, gripping our attention for an hour and a quarter and never letting go.
Goodfellow is actually Australian, but she put on a convincing American accent as Carol – Head of Health and Science at tobacco giant Anglo American Tobacco. "From my dress, you’d probably never guess that I’m a scientist" she says. Damn right – Carol was wearing a short dress so vividly red that it seared our retinas but drew our eyes irresistibly to focus on her bust, which was impressive.
Sex on legs, basically – perfectly fitting her role as a Company spokesman, seducing the Public. She was pumping up the benefits of the Anglo American brand, and reassuring the public that tobacco use was a rational and healthy lifestyle choice. She mentioned the possibility of it leading to some kind of infirmity – and then stopped the presentation with a jerk. The lights came up brighter and less blue, revealing that Carol had actually been trying out her conference speech at home, and now we watched her musing on the word to use in place of ‘infirmity’.
She settled on ‘condition’ – a far more reassuring term in the smoking context – and carried on with her presentation. Goodfellow is a very physical actress, her arm and hand movements emphasising each point and her powerfully persuasive voice really getting her message over as she moved back and forth across the stage. Scale is important in theatre, and I’d love to see this performance done in a smaller space, where I think it would be even more intense. Not that it mattered here, though – as I said at the start, she had us gripped.
Jonathan Brown has written this piece as a trenchant polemic against the evils of the tobacco industry, but as with so much of his work, the imagery works on a number of levels. Carol was trying to mislead her audience that ‘addiction to tobacco’ was not a real condition, and then she confessed to us that she hadn’t actually written the speech herself anyway – an old colleague had composed it for her – as she reached into her bra and removed some padding. Falsehood piled on falsies …
Sex on legs. She has to fuck her boss, of course. Every Tuesday afternoon she had the odious Jerry pumping away. I’ve told you Goodfellow can do physical – in this section she alternated between Jerry, gripping at her (imaginary) hips while thrusting into her from behind, and Carol, jerking forward spasmodically while bent forward with her hands on the floor. A tour de force for any actress, but Goodfellow also had to switch between Carol’s American accent and Jerry’s upper-class English drawl. That scene alone was worth the price of admission.
The ban on smoking in public buildings applies universally of course, even to Anglo American Tobacco headquarters, and a lot of show is about how the company’s employees subvert the restriction – being a tobacco company, they assume that they are essentially above the law. Jerry the MD is certainly going to smoke just wherever he wants – and he insists that all his staff smoke their full quota of cigarettes every week. The headquarters building has a Pocahontas Memorial Garden – you knew that Pocahontas was an Indian princess, of course, but did you know that she married a Virginian tobacco planter called John Rolfe, the first interracial marriage in North America?
It’s an interesting plot twist that the company staff revere the native American Pocahontas, but are prejudiced when they learn that Carol herself is a quarter Indian. Her mother was half Pawnee, and she passed on a lot of her wisdom and folk-law to her daughter. Goodfellow plays the mother too, in yet another voice, dimly lit in a red light as she talks about Pawnee customs and their use of tobacco for ceremonial purposes.
Her mother impresses on Carol the importance of natural products, of using menstrual cloths – "to let the blood flow unhindered" instead of tampons. She is horrified that the European settlers took tobacco as a commercial product, for profit, when the native Pawnee used it as a ceremonial and religious sacrament. The Pawnee tribe are from Nebraska and the Great Plains, and their mythology allowed them to see themselves as ‘the children of the stars’. Very New Age. The author neglected to mention that they also practiced child sacrifice.
Carol gets pregnant (by Jerry – Ugh!) Suddenly she has greater responsibilities than merely consuming her weekly quota of tobacco. She stops smoking, deviant behaviour seriously threatening her position within the company – these people make North Korea look liberal – and she spends a lot of time curled up in an enormous leather armchair to one side of the stage. In a long, powerful segment near the end, Goodfellow wrapped the chair’s woollen throw around her head and upper body, like a cloak with a cowl, and standing on the chair, looming tall over the audience, she became the Spirit of Tobacco.
This was beautifully and movingly done; Goodfellow’s voice becoming deeper and her delivery slower, to a background of drumming and chanting – the sound swelling and fading as she intoned the words – accusing and warning us. We have not had our lands stolen, we have not been herded into stinking reservations, we have not suffered the catastrophe of the Native Americans – but we believe that we are free, and this is our greatest disaster, to believe in our freedom in the face of the power of advertising, market forces and the multinational corporations.
Strong stuff, working on many levels. It’s a naïve and simplistic take on some complex issues – but then a lot of the potency of great myths and traditions is that they are naive and simplistic. Therein lies their charm – and their power. As always with a Jonathan Brown piece, we were left with a lot to think about. My fellow audience members were still animatedly discussing the meaning of what they’d seen as they walked off into the night. We’d also experienced a tremendously versatile performance by an immensely talented actress. Kate Goodfellow brought the material to life brilliantly – I shall watch out for her in future productions.