LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS
Harold Pinter Theatre, London, Thursday 2nd February 2023
This revival of Sam Steiner’s hit play is a likeable and vibrant production. It tells of a society where a law is passed restricting individuals’ word counts to just 140 per day. It’s to reduce stimulus overload or something like that, but really it’s about control. We follow the relationship of Bernadette and Oliver as the law is proposed, protested against, voted for, and implemented, through a series of non-chronological scenes. Gradually, we piece together their love story and their communication problems.
As Bernadette, former Doctor’s companion Jenna Coleman is bright-eyed and assertive. A fledgling lawyer, Bernadette relies on words to do her job and so invariably she uses up most of her daily quota at work, to the frustration of Aidan Turner’s bohemian/socialist Oliver. Sparks fly between the two actors, the chemistry between them is almost palpable, but the nature of the piece requires the characters to be shut off from each other, unable to express themselves freely and fluently, and so we are ultimately shut out, and only know them in glimpses.
Played against a stylish backdrop of shelving laden with discarded objects, divided by strips of bright light, there is often only the briefest lighting change between scenes, a split second for the actors to change position and demeanour. Director Josie Rourke keeps the stage bare, allowing the dialogue to denote location – are they at home, in a restaurant, at a pet cemetery? – and Coleman and Turner approach each scene with the vim of members of a cocky improv troupe, and they’re both so appealing they take us along with them.
What we don’t get are answers to questions such as, How would such a law be policed? What would be the penalties for infringement, for going over your daily limit? How would it work in other spheres: hospitals, schools and so on. Pretty soon, the law courts are given exemptions, and so is the House of Commons, because, of course, the kind of politicians who would make such legislation, would look after themselves… The play skirts around Brexit like the elephant on the dancefloor. What kind of people would want something that impoverishes and restricts the lives of everyone in the country? Talk about being sold a lemon! Oliver is a driving force in protests against the word limit, while we in the real UK, are faced with having our right to protest criminalised by an increasingly authoritarian regime… The play is so close to touching on this.
As a love story, then, it’s a bit shallow. As a thought experiment, it engages but doesn’t really develop. “Bit cerebral,” mutters the woman next to me as she puts her coat on, and then proceeds to discuss with her companion where they will go for a meal. I spend longer thinking about the play and conclude it’s a fine idea that only scratches the surface, but it’s effortlessly enjoyable thanks to the actors who both approach their roles with, I’m going to say it, zest.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman at loggerheads (Photo: Johan Persson)