Smoke: Meaghan Martin and Oli Higginson did not come to play

Kanita T.
3 min readMay 16, 2023
Credit: London Theatre

Oh, to be a fly on the wall during an intimate encounter between two strangers at a BDSM party. Step into the shoes of audience members at the Southwark Playhouse Borough production of “Smoke,” who encircle actors Oli Higginson (John) and Meaghan Martin (Julie) from all sides for 70 minutes of cat-and-mouse, predator versus prey. “Smoke” is a chilling commentary on power, manipulation, and consent that both the audience and its protagonist only recognize when all is said and done.

“You’re playing with fire,” says John to Julie. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and that’s why the trajectory of this two-hander shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s American writer Kim Davies’ adaptation of Miss Julie by August Strindberg, which had a brief run at the Flea Theater in New York back in 2014. “Smoke” explores John and Julie’s budding connection at a sex party. Julie, a going-nowhere twenty-year-old, is a first-timer. John’s a regular, a thirty-something photography intern for none other than Julie’s dad. Most of the first half is spent in small talk, with the conversation ranging from the mundane to provocative. The tension between them becomes more and more palpable by the second.

They’re in the kitchen, detached from the party but very much entrenched in its essence. There isn’t much of a setting to take in, minus the upturned fridge in a sandbox, courtesy of set designer Sami Fendall — black sand, much like time, slipping through their fingers as they become more acquainted with each other, from sharing a cigarette to giving in to their uncontrollable desires. John, a self-proclaimed “het-dom,” skillfully slips into the role of mentor, implicitly challenging Julie to succumb to her appetite for more. Julie, eager to learn, has the gall to taunt and tease. Where she has the power, he’s beyond willing to play dirty to snatch it back. She’s feverishly aroused, yet sets a clear boundary. He talks the talk, but can he walk the walk?

There are many moments in which Martin and Higginson, a real-life married couple, let their chemistry do the heavy-lifting. While the script remained largely hint-free, one raised eyebrow or batted eyelash would do the trick. Martin’s Julie in particular masterfully harnesses enough sympathy in the last few minutes, despite dripping with the irritating brazenness and youthful entitlement throughout. Higginson’s slow seduction is equal parts haunting and thrilling, yet avoids toeing the line of sleaziness.

It is the performances alone, the volcanic eruption of sexual tension, that is Smoke’s saving grace where the script and direction (another two-hander effort by Polina Kalinina and Júlia Levai) fall short. The periodic cold showers of reality in the form of cigarette-runs and frantic phone calls served less of a metaphoric purpose than they were perhaps meant to and the dialogue became an awkward attempt at Millennial-modernity that undermines an essential, hard-hitting message.

For a show that describes itself as “pre-Me Too,” Smoke undoubtedly stirs the pot on the issue of consent. Who holds the power — the spoiled, inexperienced rich girl who’s the boss’s daughter? Or the sex party-frequenter over a decade her senior? As an audience member, you bounce between being the uncomfortable third wheel and key witness to a crime. 70 minutes later, you almost want to reach over and ask Julie to share her cigarette.

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Kanita T.

a pakistani-american lover of words (and macchiatos) | student at new york university