The Scent of Roses – Royal Lyceum Theatre

Written & Directed by Zinnie Harris

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A lie is the most considerably ruthless tool we possess.

One glance across the sorry state of affairs makes this obvious, where the truth shall set you free, but a lie maintains governance: Tell a lie; apologise. Better yet – tell a lie; tell another. The narrative is key and those who control the story – control the outcome, for the rest of us, while our tall tales may not determine the course of history – they do strike at what responsibilities we share as we evade the truth, shackling ourselves to a chain of memories forged in deception.

Amongst the scattering of mulch and feathers – these are the queries raised by Scottish playwright and director Zinnie Harris, questions which thread themselves throughout The Scent of Roses, a slick and unrelenting quest for a sense of formidable truth – or at least an attempt at speaking it. 

An unfathomably bold piece, which quarrels not with diving into obscurity and confusion, The Scent of Roses is not strictly coherent – fitting for a production surrounding deception. Is it a comedy? Not strictly, it pertains to these elements, but its core is too rotten for such an enjoyable feast.

Initially, our stage poses two players: Christopher & Luci. Their relationship frayed, but on the surface appears to be working. Some wine, maybe a steak and a catch-up, nothing feels out of the ordinary; there may even be the chance to get lucky. But on waking up, Christopher realises the bedroom door is locked. And his phone is missing. As are his keys.

There’s more Annie Wilkes to this Champagne popping machine than Susan Harper. As this almost cosy and quaint nature is shattered, Luci decides that honesty, by hook or crook, is needed between her and husband Chris, played by Peter Forbes. Neve McIntosh and Forbes are the instigators of the eventual blossoms of the production, capturing the comedic elements of the show early – sowing the seeds of something far ghastlier, the pair channel a depth of emotional sympathy, yet still maintaining our support even after we discover they are both deceiving one another.

Unscrupulous, Tom Piper’s design mechanics themselves fade away into the blackness of the stage – at first transformative, rigid, eventually stripped back and fluid as our character may unfurl the truths, but find they may not desire the answer. Gradually the set unfolds, Ben Ormerod’s disorientating lighting aids in the transition between stories. From this ‘happily’ married pair to their daughter’s disjointed relationship with her ex-teacher Sally, transitioning to the jagged rekindling of Sally and her mother Helen’s (played by the marvellous Maureen Beattie) reliance on one another.

Bloodied crow in hand, Caitlan (Lean Byrne) should be a character of folly or even ridicule – something walking out the pages of antiquity yet is carried with an appropriately disjointed struggle of a young woman pulling apart the foundations of the show. Shifting from a world of strict sitcom schmaltz to a heightened sense of reality, Byrne and Saskia Ashdown’s confrontations as her former teacher erupt Harris’ writing into the evolutionary chain of deception – introducing guilt, pain and fragmented mentality.

Tying into realms of a Greek TragiComedy, the falling of the birds – corvids no less, may well speak to Harris’ more shoe-horned elements of climate emergency. Notable, if a little heavy-handed. But it also channels a rooted foundation in augury, in attempting to make sense of life through the more grotesque and deracinating everything in the search for an answer where there is none.

Elements become heavy-handed, and as the rotten petals form a mulch across the stage floor – Harris’ production skirts the edges of becoming convoluted; too compact, and yet not compact enough. A singular act, at just over 100minutes, there’s a necessity for breath, or to enable the audience composure with a trimming of scenes as Harris’s script comprises a series of duologues, and though individually each pertains merit and showcases both the directorial brilliance and performance aspects, enables a broader picture to form.

A Ring a Ring o’ Roses, Harris contemporises the provocative nature of the production’s thorns, borrowed heavily from Arthur Schnitzler, building into a relatable venture which uses deception, rather than sexual morals as the driving force. And as the flats and scenic changes lose their grip, pulling away from the fault lines, so too do our characters, their strands tangle, and their lives left without resolution. The Scent of Roses is never a sweet-smelling piece, opening its buds to repression and guilt, the sickly love-children of deceit, but it finds foundations and success within its performances and layered writing; skewering the soft, quivery underbelly beneath all that perfidious armour.

The Scent of Roses runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre until March 19th. Tickets for which can be obtained here.

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