These Foolish Things



These Foolish Things

Liz Pearce

The Borough Theatre, Abergavenny

One would be hard pressed to find a more touching and intimate portrayal of Valleys’ life than These Foolish Things. Liz Pearce’s production introduces its audience to a number of local characters, whose vulnerable accounts of their shared struggle to give up smoking take the audience on a hilarious and heart-breaking emotional rollercoaster.


Larger-than-life characters include Valleys boy Nicky Nomad, a white-haired, cowboy-booted Elvis wannabe, complete with quiff and guitar; Kathleen, shoe-loving alter-ego of Kevin the plasterer, who delights in provoking her grumpy next-door-neighbour in her red patent stilettos as she hangs out the washing, and an unnamed prisoner from Cardiff who finds herself inside for giving ‘one in the chops’ to a Mancunian who dared to badmouth the Welsh on a night out after the rugby.


These colourful characters inhabit the fictional town of Abercwm, where some were born and bred, and others moved to from further afield, including ‘Old Teddy Boy’ – a Cockney who is proud that he hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol in years, but can’t seem to stop his 25 a day cigarette habit. All are part of local life.  All are linked by these foolish things – cigarettes.

Nostalgic ballads ‘Smoke gets in your Eyes’ and These Foolish Things create the atmosphere of a 1950s smoky jazz club, with spine-tingling saxophone adding sophistication to these soap opera snapshots, that quickly turn to poignant portrayals of the limitations and frailty of mankind.


Gradually, the characters’ references to change, new beginnings and fresh starts, make sense, and the location is revealed to be a community support group for smokers wanting to give up. The ‘chorus’ of nine cast members, sitting on chairs in a semi-circle, uniformly breathing in the occasional, imaginary drag and supportively, collaboratively peering at whoever is under the spotlight telling their story, conjures up a village hall, complete with plastic stacking chairs and strip lighting.


Many references are made by the characters to patches, inhalers, sprays and other paraphernalia designed to replace ‘the fags’ – which are talked about longingly, shamefully, lustfully and desperately, like an illicit lover that cannot be let go. The local man with a passion for salsa tells of the way in which his devotion to his partner was ‘stubbed out in a silver ashtray’ when he caught her in the act (of lighting up) – the cigarette itself takes on a Machiavellian persona, out to trip each of the characters up and deny them joy.


These characters’ shared vice really is a minor detail, and more an excuse for coming together to share stories, heartache and dreams. Stopping smoking becomes a metaphor for change, for letting go of the past – of old identities, old ways of thinking, and making way for the new. Transsexual Kathleen demonstrates this most clearly, shyly admitting that she is finally able to be her real self now that her (Kevin’s) wife has died – fittingly, of lung cancer, and now that she’s ‘given up’. The audience meets each of the ‘quitters’ from the perspective of the smoking cessation officer, and gets to learn far more than they bargained for about each one.


The intelligent and sensitive performances given by the entirely stellar cast, skilfully lead the audience through a range of emotions from start to finish. Many of the monologues begin in a wildly comic way, but slowly turn to tragedy – ‘Relapse Girl’, for example, whose raw nervous energy is tangible, is hilarious, confiding that she’s ‘gorra be honest, like’ – she has had ‘a few puffs this week’. It is only when she describes her recent survival of a near-fatal stabbing attack that the horror of her story is realised, and her desperate need for ‘a few puffs’, can be fully appreciated.


Light-heartedness and desperate loneliness are present in equal measures in all of the portrayals – alongside Vera’s description of the much needed Barry Manilow poster on her ceiling that never fails to help her out when her husband’s ‘going for gold’ and the tales of a passively smoking, depressed parrot whose owner is determined to kick the habit to cure him. There are darker themes of domestic violence, unemployment, addiction and mental illness.

Writer and director Liz Pearce herself appears on stage as Elsie, a local legend who speaks from beyond the grave.  The ‘chorus’ sing in admiration of her defiance, and her long life, despite her addiction, and also describe the giant ashtray that has been placed in the memorial garden of the nursing home where she died, engraved with the words ‘Life’s a Drag!’ While a true heroine in the eyes of the community, all Elsie sees in herself is a ‘sunken face, full of regret’ and she describes the anger she feels at only being remembered for her smoking. It is this combination of vulnerability and determination that makes ‘These Foolish Things’ such a moving piece of theatre.


So, whilst life may be a drag for the inhabitants of this small Welsh town, they certainly exude hope for new beginnings and better times.  Every aspect of this wonderful collection of stories – the writing, the acting, the music and the singing, is truly marvellous, and most certainly ‘smoking’ – in the best sense of the word!