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LIKE SMOKE IN HERE by Ben Anderson
NORMA STRONG by Elyse Brock
directed by Ben Anderson & Jacinta Scadden

at The Basement Studio, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland
From 6 Nov 2012 to 10 Nov 2012

Reviewed by Reynald Castaneda, 7 Nov 2012

Welcome to a world where hysterical women inhabit the kitchen.  

Now showing at the Basement until this Saturday, November 10, Like Smoke in Here and Norma Strong successfully navigates through two kitchens, one tested by slowly burning fire, the other by an invisible mistress. Absurd? Yes. Silly? No.

Ben Anderson's Like Smoke in Here begins with a deafening fire alarm, a boy feverishly licking the palm of his hands, a woman hysterically reacting to a gunshot, and another woman on her knees furiously brushing half a lemon on a table leg. Talk about chaos.

We later discover that Flora (Jo Clark), the woman on her knees, is Anderson's heroine – a woman so unlucky her insurance company sees it as a pre-existing condition.

How unlucky is Flora exactly? For starters, she's unable to extinguish the slow burning fire that is consuming her house at leisure, as the Māori own all the water and are demanding her land in exchange (a small political detail which could affect your enjoyment of the play).

On top of that, her husband, Jimmy (Anthony Towler), is on his deathbed due to a disease that could also potentially infect their son, Connor (Braun Pilling). And to remind audiences how grim and draining it is to be Flora, she's best friends with Margot (Jessie Graham), a woman whose eternal sunshine unfortunately showcases an empty mind.

Like Smoke in Here is a serious affair in the face of a preposterous plot. Flora, wearing a frumpy blue top and a pair of black leggings, is a character that's easy to feel sorry for but difficult to empathise with. After all, she's a woman who thinks it's a bright idea to douse fire with lemon juice.

The play is hauntingly staged: the vision of a kitchen slowly disintegrating into fragile pieces of paper as the play progresses, adds to the play's bleak crescendo. Indeed, this dark comedy does end in a very sad and lonely place.

Like Smoke in Here, even if it lacks fire, is a nihilist's wet dream.

On the other hand, Elyse Brock's Norma Strong accomplishes levity without sacrificing gravity. Married couple, Clint (Matthew Norton) and Mary (Gina Timberlake), face an unusual predicament: Clint is having an affair with a fictional character from his novel. Much to Mary's chagrin, their psychiatrist (Maxine Cunliffe) suggests she should play along. Hilarity ensues.

In this kitchen, where dining chairs are neatly yet precariously stacked to resemble bench tops and counter tops, performances are polished and lines are delivered with comedic precision. Thanks to a strong cast, invisible Norma is, indeed, alive.

The plot is as absurd as it can get, yet its deeper, darker ideas on relationships are never undercut. Clint and Mary's marriage is not as perfect as Mary claims it is. Here, both characters are allowed to project their ideals onto an invisible character, undermining and challenging the reality of their marriage. In a relationship dependent on the fantasy of nostalgia, will this marriage go on?

Norma Strong is a beefy play disguised with a fluffy hook.

This double bill is a success. Even if Norma Strong is more enjoyable, Like Smoke in Here is more enigmatic. Even if Like Smoke in Here has better staging, Norma Strong is more polished and on-point. There's nothing here that should keep you away – both kitchens are well worth the visit. 
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See also reviews by:
 James Wenley (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);


Ben Anderson posted 7 Nov 2012, 08:58 PM

Thanks for the review. Just to clarify in relation to the comment 'as the Māori own all the water and are demanding her land' - this doesn't actually occur in the play at all. I'm not completely sure how Maori came into this - maybe the mention of the Murray family? We'll work on our enunciation for the next show to avoid accidentally looking a bit racist.


Reynald Castaneda posted 8 Nov 2012, 11:26 AM

Thanks for clarifying that, Ben. Poor enunciation does lead to an unexpected Rorschach test.