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Review: The Scent of Roses by Zinnie Harris

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Zinnie Harris’ Scent of Roses may be the most dispiriting play I have ever seen. Don’t be fooled by the fragrant title. In scorching Scottish summer, birds die and fall to the ground while five miserable Edinburgh residents navigate their bleak lives at each other’s expense.

The set is a modest but tastefully decorated bedroom. The walls are painted in a charming à la mode slate, and the bed is covered in a floral throw that looks straight out of Cath Kidston. It all seems pleasant until we meet the pathetic cheater Christopher (Peter Forbes) and the controlling Luci (Neve McIntosh). This gilded cage soon morphs into a suffocating display of the trials and tribulations of a failing marriage. Forbes dominates the motion of the scene as he breaks apart props, tearing his wife’s clothes up and throws his weight around like a toddlera manifestation of the brutish force that broke up their marriage. There is no love in their relationship, only anger and manipulation. The stage itself seems to writhe in agony, as the shrill sonic assault of feedback accompanies every scene change. 

Peter Forbes and Neve McIntosh in The Scent of Roses by Zinnie Harris. Image courtesy of Tim Morozzo via Scent of Roses Press Kit.

The play becomes darker still in Act 2 when we meet their troubled daughter, Caitlin (Leah Byrne). The scene opens with Byrne covered in blood, carrying a dead bird into the kitchen of her old teacher Sally (Saskia Ashdown), with whom she had a relationship during her school days. Byrne’s neurotic and disturbing dialogue distracts from the prevalent issue at handthe fact that Caitlin was groomed by her teacher. 

Jarringly, the play fails to explore the implication of grooming and abuse, presenting the victim as a manipulative and unlikeable character while embarking upon a redemption arc for her abuser, the alcoholic Sally. Harris opens Pandora’s box, introducing heavy themes like sexual consent, grooming, suicide, and cancer, but deals with them in a perfunctory, reductive manner.

Leah Byrne and Saskia Ashdown in The Scent of Roses by Zinnie Harris. Image courtesy of Tim Morozzo via Scent of Roses Press Kit.

‘I am blood and bone and most definitely alone’ cries Luci to an audience comprised almost exclusively of couples and families as she stands on a vacant stage, the embodiment of isolation. McIntosh’s piercing eyes, filled with pain, impale me even in the second to last row. I feel a sense of moral responsibility towards this broken woman, devoid of love and light, broken apart by her slovenly cheating husband in his grubby band t-shirt and cargos. Later, he will meet with his mistress, Sally’s cold and successful mother, and his crusty attire will be a stark contrast to her linen shirt and red lipstick.

Tom Piper’s set is truly genius, and the audience is met with a verdant gradient and five trees that fall from the ceiling to resemble a park, but I only see the prison bars Forbes’ character has created with his selfishness. 

The final scene reverts to the bedroom. Luci and Christopher tell each other the truth for the first time. The play feels somewhat voyeuristic, as we intrude into the intimate space of their bedroom. But the last scene contains the kind of vulnerability that chokes you. ‘I feel lonely’, says Luci. ‘Snap’, he replies. The play ends with the couple on the bed, as the soothing voice of Vashti Bunyan heralds the end of their marriage, and crow feathers fall from the sky. 

There is little redemption here, and the black feathers settle as a fitting pall to end this tragic play.

Scent of Roses runs from the 25 February – 19 March 2022 at the Royal Lyceum Theatre

Image courtesy of Tim Morozzo via Scent of Roses Press Kit