Smoking Is Bad for You review – Chekhov with a breath of fresh air

Pitlochry Festival theatre has been much in the news recently, and for good reason. Over the course of the pandemic it has continuously produced an extraordinary quantity of work. Artistic director Elizabeth Newman rapidly reacted to new realities by adapting plans for the theatre’s 70th anniversary celebrations. Outstanding commissions, such as David Greig’s Adventures With the Painted People, were adapted for radio, or for “sound stages” to broadcast online. New commissions kept work flowing to freelance writers and artists. A telephone club was set up so audiences could call up for a chat, or a song, or a story. Now the new summer programme, performed outdoors by members of the company’s 22-strong ensemble, features family shows, dramas, promenades, music, stories and songs (in Gaelic as well as English).

If this wasn’t enough, the theatre has also created a terrific open-air amphitheatre, nestled in the woodlands near the main house. 여기, sitting on a wooden bench, I experience this bittersweet Chekhov double bill, adapted by Newman and performed by Ali Watt.

In the elegiac About Love, Alekhin poignantly shares with us his feelings for a married woman and also his logically reasoned decision, maintained over many years, not to declare them – it would be dishonourable to break up her family; her love might cool in the dullness of his own humdrum existence. The contrasting comic monologue, Smoking Is Bad for You (alternative title On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco), introduces Ivan. Struggling his way through the lecture his wife has insisted he deliver to raise money for charity, nicotine-addicted Ivan strays off-subject, telling us of his blasted hopes, unhappy marriage and nine daughters, all unmarried.

Watt’s performance, as directed by Ben Occhipinti, is superb. In both pieces, well-timed pauses open depths in simple-seeming phrases; finely crafted movements highlight thoughts behind words. Watt winds us into sympathy with the characters’ frailties. Beyond him, tree trunks soar towards the darkening sky; fluttering leaves rustle; somewhere below us, running water splashes along its course. Theatre and place speak together in Pitlochry.

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