The latest indie theatre piece to crash down in Toronto’s Factory Studio Theatre is called The Big Smoke, a title which refers to its London setting, not its current location. The piece is essentially a weird solo acapella opera wherein Amy Nostbakken sings the story of aspiring artist Natalie using only an empty stage, some basic lighting, a flouncy, pink and easily removable dress and a single microphone stand.
Based loosely on the lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, The Big Smoke is stylistically unconventional while telling a far-too-familiar story about a young woman’s romantic trials in a new city and her eventual, perplexing decent into crippling depression. Nostbakken is a captivating performer with superb vocal control but the actual structure of the story she delivers doesn’t make the most of her ability to deliver in a format that’s fascinating at first but wears as the production drags on. Sung-through at times beautifully, at times with emotional ugliness, Natalie’s story isn’t quite interesting enough in itself to carry the production without more complex musical composition to match the performance level. The stripped-down style of the show needs a stronger story; or, the story needs more production trappings to hold the audience’s attention. As it is, Nostbakken is operating truly solo, a task even a talent of her calibre falls just short of.