It's tempting to play hunt-the-Minghella-motif with Cigarettes and Chocolate. For a start, there's the supporting role played by music. Gemma, whom the action revolves around, has given up speaking and taken refuge in listening to Bach's St Matthew Passion, a preoccupation that brings to mind not only ITV's Minghella-scripted Inspector Morse ("I keep thinking [the music] must be a clue," someone even says) but also the importance of cello music to the writer's first feature film, 1991's Truly Madly Deeply.
Indeed, it's this movie rather than The English Patient that Cigarettes and Chocolate keeps reminding you of. Sometimes it does this in the details, its comfortably middle-class north London setting, or a cleaning lady who used to be a psychiatrist in Argentina. But, more significantly, there is something similar about the two works' structures.
Gemma's silence isn't just to do with Lent. Her lounge-lizard lover Rob is having an affair with one of her friends. Another, dippy Gail, is pregnant. Yet another, the dourly drippy Scot, Alistair, has unexpectedly revealed his love for her. On top of this, she has become hypersensitively aware of the homeless and developed a mawkish obsession with a picture of a Tibetan monk who has burnt himself to death.
Gemma's extreme reaction to her circumstances, her self-imposed silence and her eventual return to the land of the speaking, share the shape of Nina's grief in Truly Madly Deeply. Nina (who has lost her lover) and Gemma (who is probably about to lose hers) both express their despair with a magnificent self-absorption. There are times when you'd like to give both of them a good slap round the face.
On the radio, of course, you wouldn't see Gemma's face - which is the main problem with this stage version. Minghella's play suits its original medium because it is sculpted around a void. Audaciously, he has written a radio play in which the main character is largely silent. What symbolic weight Gemma's character possesses comes from the fact that we cannot hear or see her. For a radio listener, too, the St Matthew Passion isn't simply a piece of music Gemma plays: it comes to represent her voice.
On-stage, Jane Allighan, as Gemma, faces an impossible task: how do you give presence to a character who is designed to be an absence? Not surprisingly, she looks uncomfortable, until she finally gets her chance to speak, deriding the limitations of language and the power of silence: "This is, after all, our first punishment, Babel."
The performances, while never exceptional, are good enough (although, played by Charlie Burnell, Rob is so repulsively self-justifying that you wonder how he ever hitched up with the earthy Gemma in the first place). Likewise, Christopher G Sandford's production and David Shields's cramped white cube of set are inoffensive enough, but can't do much against the play's static visuals. The best thing to do, perhaps, is to close your eyes.
At The Man in the Moon, London SW3, to 29 Apr. Booking: 0171-351 2876Reuse content