Smoking with Lulu/ Nightingale and Chase

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THE single most memorable fact about Kenneth Tynan is not that he was the first man to say the f-word on television, but that despite being perhaps the most brilliant British critic and essayist of his age, he died of emphysema at only 53, having done his damnedest, over several decades, to smoke and fornicate himself to death.

For him, the experience of sexual and intellectual excitement seemed bound up with various forms of self-destruction and sado-masochistic punishment; and when his creativity burned brightest, it had a sharp, camp, Wildean quality that defied conventional ideas about love, fertility and happiness.

Janet Munsil’s Smoking With Lulu, first seen in 1995 and now revived for a three-week run in the Circle Studio, celebrates one of the brightest of those creative moments, which involved Tynan’s New Yorker interview, towards the end of his life, with the silent film actress, Louise Brooks. Brooks was the star of the great Pabst film Pandora’s Box, based on Wedekind’s Lulu, and even in her great old age, Tynan felt he had found a kindred spirit.

Munsil’s 75-minute play sometimes seems at a loss for a narrative line to carry its ideas and imagery, and the result is some plodding dialogue, particularly on Louise’s side. But director Kenny Miller’s gorgeously veiled set, Simon Roberts’s superb performance as the doomed Tynan, and the use of Brooks’s old film footage - combined with electrifying live appearances from Sarah Lawrie as Lulu in sex-goddess mode - make this a haunting, fascinating show, and a powerful meditation on the camp religion of defiance and unadulterated style in the face of death, as practised by two of its greatest exponents.

Zinnie Harris’s Nightingale and Chase, playing downstairs in the Stalls Studio, also deals with the demons of self-destruction. Here, there is no compensating wit or high style; the only redemption in this play comes from the writer’s compassion for her characters, and from the grace and intensity with which she lets them tell their sad tale.

Chase is a mother in her early twenties who has just spent ten months in prison; Nightingale is her much older husband, who arrives late to take her home to a house from which their beloved son is absent, and soon finds himself beating her up to the extent that she flees to a hostel for the homeless. It’s a gloomy story, and the motive for telling it is never quite clear. But there’s something about the simple integrity of Harris’s language, and the intensity with which she weaves the two characters’ monologues into a tragedy in three movements, that fairly breaks the heart. Lewis Howden and Lesley Hart give such passionate, disciplined and beautifully-paced performances, directed by Guy Hollands, that it’s difficult not to become completely absorbed in their story; and to feel as if we’ve just been watching a short film of unbelievable intensity.