Perky and poignant, funny and fatalistic, Ash is a study of love: love for a mother, love between husband and wife, and – here's the rub – love of a thing which will kill you. It's grounded firmly in no-nonsense Yorkshire, but it's filled with creative flourish; it plays to the eyes and the ears, but most of all to the heart. It follows a likeable, everyday protagonist called George, introducing us to the family and friends who surround him. And all of them smoke.
The story spans two generations, from mother to son, subtly tracking shifts in society's attitudes as time rolls on. By the end, smokers like George are banished outside – but the early action is punctuated by ironic parodies of 1960's TV ads, filled with false reassurance about "milder" brands. We first meet George, a child of those naïve times, in the act of stealing cigarettes from his mother; what she does when she catches him is shocking, and almost unthinkable today.
The soundtrack to George's life is furnished by on-stage musician Paul Tonkin, playing well-chosen foot-tapping numbers to guide us through the decades. Musical treatments of serious topics rarely come off well, but the balance in Ash is just right: Tonkin has an uncomplicated, outgoing style which matches the intimate scale of the production. The whole cast join in with visual set-pieces, and the choreography is elegant and enjoyable – ranging from flamenco-inspired dance riffs to elaborate cinematic pastiches. This is often a highly-stylised production, but the artifice is discreet, never distracting from the strength of the acting.
A lot of the comedy comes from George's awkward courtship, his conversations with his inquisitive mum, and other episodes which – on the face of it – have nothing to do with smoking at all. But in truth, everything in this play is to do with smoking; because this is the story of George's life, and there's never any doubt how George's life is going to end. As time goes on the humour grows grimmer, yet the script elegantly refrains from moralising, highlighting instead how irreplaceable a role cigarettes have come to play in George's world. The end, when it comes, is piercing: as powerfully understated as the scenes that come before.
Ash remains commendably focussed on a specific family, in a specific place at a specific time. But the story is also a universal one; there can't be many in the audience who aren't in some way entangled in its theme. So despite the levity, despite the humour, despite the dance, this is a troubling and deeply moving play. I left the theatre quietly, and I stayed shrouded in silence for much of my journey home.