Theatre review: The Scent of Roses – Lyceum, Edinburgh

First published in The Times, Wednesday March 9 2022


The new drama by Zinnie Harris, the award-winning Scottish playwright and director, presents an assortment of characters trying with varying degrees of success to say the unsayable. In the opening sequence Luci (Neve McIntosh) resorts to locking Christopher (Peter Forbes), her husband of 21 years, in their bedroom, with supplies of food and wine, so she can confront him about a suspected affair. In a later scene their daughter Caitlin (Leah Byrne) spins a grotesque and increasingly elaborate lie to reconnect with a former lover, Sally (Saskia Ashdown).

It is a slippery play that deliberately takes its time bringing its themes into focus. Just when you’re settling into the blackly funny cut and thrust of the opening two-hander (Harris directs, with a good sense of pace and comic timing), Tom Piper’s set (a tasteful yet soulless Edinburgh bedroom) fractures, Luci and Christopher disappear, and the atmosphere takes on an altogether darker, more sinister edge. 

Pic: Tim Morozzo

The structure of Harris’s play – essentially a string of linked two-character vignettes – certainly keeps the audience on its toes, but, although the script touches upon everything from power dynamics in relationships to government and experts tiptoeing around catastrophic climate change, the diffuse material never really coalesces around any urgent dramatic idea. Some of these conflicts are resolved more satisfactorily than others, some are left open-ended, while others simply peter out.

Ironically, for a play concerned with failures of communication, there is something in its tone that inhibits deep emotional engagement. It is amusing, and feels true to life, to witness these people repeatedly taking refuge in brittle humour, insulting language, the bottle, or a mixture of all three, but it eventually becomes repetitive. 

Pic: Tim Morozzo

It is only towards the climax (the production runs to around 100 minutes with no interval) that characters start to divest themselves of their battle gear and make a stab at frank conversation. The superb Maureen Beattie arrives late in the day, supplying some much-needed warmth and candour in the role of a woman trying to hold her troubled daughter at a distance, while the final episode, which brings the chain full circle, has a raw, poignant edge to it that is lacking in the rest.    

Box office: 0131 248 4848, to March 19.

Author: Allan Radcliffe

I am a writer, freelance journalist, subeditor and theatre critic, based in South Queensferry. My short fiction has been published in anthologies such as Out There, Elsewhere, The Best Gay Short Stories, ImagiNation, Markings, Gutter, New Writing Scotland and Celtic View. I have won the Scottish Book Trust's New Writer's Award and several of my stories have been adapted for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a journalist I write regularly for The Times, the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald, Sunday Times, Metro, Big Issue and I was formerly assistant editor of The List magazine.

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