The Scent of Roses

Reviewer's rating

The Scent of Roses opens with Neve McIntosh’s Luci calmly informing her husband Chris (Peter Forbes) that she has locked them in their bedroom, and she won’t be letting him leave until they ‘have a conversation’. Chris is progressively confused, frustrated and eventually furious at this seemingly unreasonable approach. The pressure and tension build nicely, but just as it appears we’re in for a taut, single-location two-hander, the scene shifts, new characters are introduced and the air starts to leach slowly from proceedings.

This is a real shame, as the taut dialogue, sparkling chemistry, laughs, and shocks of the opening scene promise so much. Writer and director Zinnie Harris perfectly captures the comfortable dialogue of middle age and a long marriage – the spousal shorthand, the in-jokes, the loving moments, and the maddening ones – before demolishing the foundations with a simple turn of a key in a lock. En route, Harris covers issues of trust, consent, and power against a backdrop of infidelity and failing health with a lightness of touch that belies her serious intent.

Unfortunately, the action leaves the bedroom before these themes can be covered in a truly satisfying way, and visits a number of other, connected characters. Along the way, the play loses focus and gets bogged down in too many fresh topics. The rambling dialogue tries to cover everything from the nature of truth and alcoholism to love, parenting, and even the climate crisis. The result is a smorgasbord of ‘big issues’ covered in nothing like enough depth to do them justice. These issues weigh the play down as heavily as the albatross in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which is clumsily alluded to in the play through a laboured bird metaphor. 

There’s nothing wrong with Harris’ dialogue in the later scenes, if anything, it might be a little too accurate; rambling teenage pseudo-philosophers and drunks are only so interesting to listen to for any length of time. It is notable that once the action moves back to middle-aged characters, the laughs and the pathos come much more easily.

A scene late in the play between Helen (Maureen Beattie) and Chris is short but note-perfect, the folly of the middle-aged male ruthlessly exposed in everything from Helen’s raucous laughter to Chris’ too-tight Bruce Springsteen t-shirt. However, it never feels cruel, only sad, a credit to both the writing and the sensitivity of the performances from Beattie and Forbes.

McIntosh is likewise superb as the wronged and vengeful Luci, forced (as she sees it) into extreme behaviour by her philandering husband. She moves easily from seduction to fury to cold, calculating ruthlessness, letting us see every emotion in her face and physicality. 90 minutes in the company of Luci and Chris, watching their marriage and friendship broken and remade before our eyes would have been time well spent. There is a truly excellent play in The Scent of Roses, one that’s maybe 20 minutes shorter and never leaves the bedroom. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite it.