Review: Scent (Greenside @ Infirmary Street)
Updated: Aug 10, 2023
Top notes of talent but cliché leaves the performance feeling corked
There’s a particular scene in 2020’s Netflix sensation Queen’s Gambit that became a go-to example for the male gaze: chess prodigy Beth having a breakdown by dancing around her living room in a vest and knickers while drinking. As I watched a once-talented young redheaded woman swilling wine and dancing to David Bowie I wondered if I was in for a similar affair with Stacey Cullen’s Fringe debut Scent. But no, this solo show written and performed by Stacey Cullen tells a very different story. For her character Jamie, wine is not just a means of inebriation, but her area of expertise. She tells us how she ended up in this rut, punctuating her story with vivid descriptions of smells she encountered along the way – the smell of bread, fresh rain, and the back of a police car.
She starts the performance by welcoming us and starting to make bread, presumably telling her story in between a baking lesson. This would be a neat idea if she had committed to it. Instead, her storytelling cuts jarringly to a drunken fight she had with her boyfriend. Indeed, much of the narrative is forced from one idea to another at unnatural points. As an audience member, you feel as though you are not learning about her so much as what has happened to her. At the same time, the timing and delivery of Cullen’s performance feel clichéd, following a flow that becomes predictable and tired. Although she has an involving stage presence it is spoiled by the way that none of her lines feel as though they are being spoken for the first time.
Photo Credit: Olivia Spencer Photography
This is a shame, since the individual lines are well-written, and the idea of following her story through smells is an interesting one. Where it fails is giving us a sense of Jamie as a character. In many ways, I feel I learnt more about her character from a tangent she went on about being into “witchy things” in her youth than I did about how influential smell is in her life. As for being a sommelier and making bread, it ends up just being decoration. It amounts to a few books on the table about wine tasting and an inconsequential irony of an alcoholic sommelier to amplify the tragedy.
Indeed, the tragedy of the plot is not original enough in itself without compelling characters. There are seeds of talent in this performance, not in this play specifically but in Cullen as a theatre-maker. Scent, on its own merit, feels far too ordinary and rehearsed to stand out in a market flooded with solo shows like the Fringe. That said, I suspect we will see future work from her that, given time and complexity, could become a fine vintage. Three stars.
Whispers from the Crowd: It was really good, I really liked it.
Scent will play at Greenside @ Infirmary Street until August 26th