Review By Rowan Brunt
It has been long awaited but KXT/ bAKEHOUSE has finally settled into its new home in Sydney’s Broadway and welcomes to the stage, for its first showing, Cherry Smoke by American writer James McManus, produced by emerging indie company CrissCross Productions.
The venue has kept the feeling of KXT in Kings Cross, bringing something from Sydney's past, in this case an old National Bank of Australasia, and repurposed for a new life. Luckily for the arts we are keeping an independent theatre venue that consistently is the grounds for new companies and works to emerge.
From an outsider's eye it is a strange choice for the first programmed show in this new Sydney venue, taking a play written nearly 20 years ago and speaking to a specific experience in an American context. Whilst many of the themes align with the nuance of the human experience and the work done by the creative and production team of Cherry Smoke is well done it would’ve been nice to champion this shift with an Australian piece, even better a local Sydney work and playwright.
All that aside let's dive into Criss Cross Productions staging of Cherry Smoke by James McManus.
Fish (Tom Dawson) is returning from jail yet again to the delight of girlfriend Cherry (Meg Hyeronimus), Fish’s brother, Duffy (Fraser Crane), and Duffy's wife, Bug (Alice Birbara). A club fighter that is making ends meet by using his fists, Fish, is struggling to fight the life that was chosen for him and the crack they have slipped into in society, while trying to keep connected to his long time lover Cherry, a runway fortune teller with only a single drive in life, her love for Fish. Duffy and Bug support the pair in any way they can whilst trying to pull away from what they have been given and face that this just might be it.
The piece speaks to many themes: from the outset the violence young men are subjected to and expected to inflict upon the world and the way society leaves many of our compatriots behind. From a deeper level it speaks to hope and gratitude but also begs the questions “can we re-draw the hand that we have been dealt?”.
The play moves back and forth throughout timelines, all in small vignette’s crossing between the relationships of the four characters. Director Charlie Vaux successfully navigates the staging and pacing of this piece, giving enough space for each moment to have it’s full breath before swiftly carrying us to the next stage in the story. Whilst the language of Cherry Smoke at times feels didactic and one note, Vaux’s strong vision for the piece kept us on board and engaged.
We traverse through many timelines and locations and the set design by Soham Apte, while is well executed and brings us a sense of the atmosphere, doesn’t feel specific or detailed. The central focal point of the boxing ring, becoming a secondary stage within the performance and was a smart tactical move to allow actors to be present in the piece whilst another narrative could play out.
Jasmin Borsovszky does bring some magic to the Lighting Design of the piece with a special mention to a moment with fireworks, so simplistic but effective in highlighting this moment of wonder in the darkness.
Cherry Smoke’s cast of four show a connection and vigour in their performances that keeps the audience leaning in throughout. Dawson, as Fish, demonstrates a delicate application of his craft, perfectly playing the soft desire and the blood boiling anger he tries to suppress, never moving into cliche or just sitting within the anger. Both Hyeronimus and Crane step into their characters without a judgement and matter of fact portrayal that gives us an eye into this world and the part they play. Rounding out this cast, Birbara, has such a delicate approach to Bug that even from those earlier years in the flashback shows a maturity and maternity needed for this story. The honesty Birbara brings to Bug is heart breaking in its reservation, an understanding of “this is how it is” and trying to find the glimmer of hope in all of this world's messiness.
Criss Cross Production’s understands the core of theatre that sometimes can be lost, commitment and moving towards the honesty at the core of the work.