Review: Sniff at Theatre503

Monday 25th July 2022 at Theatre 503, London.


Reviewer: Jonathan Walfisz

Anyone with any sense should know that little good can come from racking up lines in a grim pub toilet with a complete stranger. That’s exactly the predicament that Alex finds himself in the middle of Sniff at the Theatre503. You’d think he should know better. But after an hour of being charmed by the elusively magnetic Liam, you don’t blame him for sticking around.

Sniff follows Alex, played by Felix Grainger, as he struggles to piss in anticipation of proposing to his fiancée in a pub in St Albans. He’s buoyed on by Liam, played by the writer, Gabriel Fogarty-Graveson.

What starts as a casual conversation builds through bickering into violent confrontation as the two’s seemingly humdrum chatter highlights the severe social distances that separate the characters’ lives. 

Alex and Liam are cunning inverses of each other. Alex is a pseudo-success. He excels at an advertising job in London and is on the verge of marriage to the love of his life. In truth, he’s a nervous wreck who got his job through nepotism and is plagued by guilt for the repercussions of his career choices. 

On the flipside, Liam first comes across as the typical big man about town. But all his wit and bravado belies a tortured character in a gambling hole who suffers anxieties over his steadily declining social status among friends who flew the nest of his dull suburban town. Despite the outward confidence, he’s lost control of his life. Or has he? 

The brilliance of Sniff is in the intricate way the two characters’ conversation seemingly circles around innocuous topics while it is in fact spiralling to a gripping and shocking finale.

The action is also broken up by flashbacks to the two characters’ lives. While some of these scenes provide interesting backstory and foreshadowing, such as when Liam teaches his dad his roulette strategy, I often found they instead distracted from the steadily intensifying drama in the loo. I was also confused by Alex’s single acceptance of Liam’s insistence they went to school together, which Alex has previously denied multiple times.

Where Sniff excels is in its humour. Dark splashes of inky black wit are spread lavishly throughout the script, and Grainger and Fogarty-Graveson deliver each hit with exacting precision. There is also a laconic cameo by director Ben Purkiss which is filled with grin-inducing physical comedy.

Fogarty-Graveson’s script builds to a fascinating conclusion that flips the power dynamic of the piece on its head. Throughout the play, Liam’s swerving control of the conversation indicates a nuanced intelligent character beyond an archetype of the local pub joker. While excellently acted, I felt sometimes that same nuance was slightly lacking in the characterisation of Alex, who could be read as the idea of a posh city boy, instead of a real one. Nonetheless, when the play does reach its thrilling end, the inversion of circumstances had me questioning the small details of the two’s interactions for hours after.

Sniff plays Theatre503 until July 26 2022 – you can find tickets here.

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