I’m surprised vaping and electronic cigarettes caught on in the way that they have. The devices eliminate one of the central aesthetic pleasures of smoking: the small, crisp crackle as the flame first makes contact with the end of a cigarette. Ivan (Andrew Buckland), the central character in Tobacco, would likely agree. Tasked with giving an educational diatribe on why one should step away from the baccy, the beleaguered father of twenty (yes, twenty) has other ideas. Adapted from Anton Chekhov’s On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco by William Harding, Ivan demonstrates a dedication only to deviation.
Whilst notionally about the decision to smoke or not to smoke, Ivan’s gleeful disobedience in not delivering the correct lecture is more a celebration of non-conformity in all its forms. Constricted by middle class conventionality as much as by his polyester suit, Ivan indulges in a Swallows and Amazons style fantasy of swapping a briefcase for a bow and arrow, and setting sail down stream in a wooden canoe. As he floats further into his alternate universe, Ivan sheds his sartorial shackles in 1970s news presenter brown and does what we all secretly envy toddlers for: prances around in his underwear.
The biggest draw for this show is Buckland’s performance. Tonally, the play shares something in common with Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, and the charm of Buckland’s portrayal similarly lies in an old school aesthetic. Elements of traditional clowning and slapstick combine with physical manoeuvres requiring (hello, Pilates teachers!) impressive core strength. Some of the best moments are in his mimed asides, particularly a ‘don’t mind if do’ snaffling of all the canapés at the buffet. Likewise, the realisation of a ‘chorus of laughter’ is very amusingly acted out.
With the frequent repetition of ‘My WIFE’ as the start of another remembrance of domestic drudgery, Tobacco could become comedy based merely on a browbeaten husband and his shrewish wife (Toni Morkel). What prevents it from being so is Buckland’s knockabout characterisation (which makes him the butt of most of the jokes) and his concluding declaration of love for the woman. Allowed to explore his storybook daydream of being the heroic hunter-gatherer, Ivan realises that the best addition of all to his wooden boat is the one he exchanged rings with. After all, if there’s one thing more enjoyable than a cigarette, it’s sharing a cigarette with the one you love.
Tobacco is on at Assembly George Square, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe 2017, until 27 August 2017. Click here for more details.