‘Don’t shoot!’ In a play about a war photographer, phrases like these can change meaning in a flash. ‘Smile’, a play by Nottingham-based screenwriter Stephen Lowe, plays around with images and perceptions but always comes back to the same place: a square in Bosnia, many years ago.
The play is set in a shop at the end of a pier, where a former war photographer (Amy Rushton) has taken up the more mundane profession of making flawless postcards. Her last customer of the day (Ben Cave) reminds her all too much of her work in Bosnia, but he turns out to have some memories of his own as well.
The haunted war photographer has become somewhat of a cliché, and the play neatly follows the conventions. The photographer hangs around in scruffy clothes with uncombed hair, and manages to smoke a cigarette and down a drink before the play has started. The Eastern-European man with a thick accent in a very large suit is as much of a cliché.
However, as both characters get more exposed, it turns out that there is still enough to develop. Lowe plays with such photographic puns throughout the play, half of the time by jokingly analysing them. This gives a nice consistency in an already comfortingly compact play.
The décor is extensive, with every drawer filled and every technological item working. The audience can witness what the actors are doing on the computer on a big screen, which also gives an original insight in what is going on in their heads. For a play dealing with a traumatic past, one might have expected it to have been less rooted in the present. The elaborate décor and the limited cast at first seems to restrict the play : the action takes place in real-time, in one room, with two actors. However, the actors create and recreate images in a different place and time that stay on your mind. Ben Cave manages to turn the production from a melodrama into a thriller with a single glance.
The only flaw is the all too complicated language, which is sometimes at odds with the ultra-realistic form of the play. The poetry of the words works better in the broken English of the man than in the rushed, not always intelligible, comments of the woman. The great story and ditto acting don’t need such linguistic gymnastics.