DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Smile Club – Leeds Playhouse

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Writers: Andrea Heaton, Adam Z. Robinson

Director: Rod Dixon

The Bramall Rock Void in the depths of Leeds Playhouse hosts Red Ladder’s remarkable one-woman show, Smile Club, for four performances before it embarks on 20 one-nighters around the country, with over half in Yorkshire. These performances are in village halls, sports clubs and arts centres as well as theatres, so the staging is necessarily small-scale and uncomplicated, though the technical side of things in the hands of Adam Foley and Ed Heaton is immaculately handled and (at times) dramatically arresting.

Andrea Heaton and Adam Z. Robinson’s script is powerful, well judged and smartly satirical; the subject could not be more relevant; Andrea Heaton’s performance is riveting and endlessly resourceful. The only problem lies with the length and focus of the generally excellent script. Billed in advance as 60 minutes, advertised by the theatre at 80 minutes, it runs for 90 minutes and the dramatic narrative in the later stages, though well handled by Heaton, comes after the points have been made and the play wants to end.

This apart, Smile Club is hard-hitting and ingenious – and the satirical punch fairly often comes with a laugh. In a near-future dystopia (at times it seems to be today) Lisa tells us her story: already humiliated and irritated by a man at the station’s constant chat-up lines (“Give us a smile, love, you’ve got a lovely smile” – that sort of thing), she reacts violently and is branded a major criminal. Surprisingly she is sent not to prison, but to Smile Club.

Clearly these Smile Clubs operate on a commercial basis – there are some deliciously cringy commercials for them – but the Government is increasingly controlling their intake to convert independent-minded women into blandly acquiescent “ladies”. The Smile Club runs modules on how a lady should behave, essentially “smile and don’t make a fuss”, the systems of control based on the dislocation between cooing encouragement and the heavy brigade just round the corner for even the most moderate subversive.

Under Rod Dixon’s discreet direction Andrea Heaton is convincing and involving as Lisa, puzzled about what all the fuss is about, finding herself, but not in the way Smile Club would appreciate. Heaton, often confessional and confiding in Lisa’s narrative, delivers bravura re-creations of several of the people she encounters, notably Paula who delivers the lessons with a dazzling smile and cold-fish eyes and elongates ‘smile’ into two syllables, with a ‘y’ in the middle. Paula’s range of clichés is horribly convincing, as are the perpetual complaints about feminism and male deprivation of the boorish husband who comes visiting Smile Club and is over-heard by Lisa. Without exaggerating, Heaton conveys what we need to know about character by posture as much as by voice.

As designed by Emma Williams, the set, with little furniture, is well provided with buzzers, screens, intercoms and so on which play a key role in Lisa’s interaction (or lack of interaction) with authority and help to build the tension which is always there, even in the more overtly comic moments.

Runs until 7th March 2020

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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