It’s no surprise that a show all about brevity receives an equally tight staging with its West End premiere, but while couple Oliver (Aidan Turner, of The Lieutenant of Inishmore) and Bernadette (Jenna Coleman, of Doctor Who) are masterful with the limitations thrust upon them, director Josie Rourke’s artistic decisions still remains light on some of the essential details. Less is more, as the saying goes, but I was left needing more.
Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons was Sam Steiner’s playwriting debut which caught attention at the Edinburgh Fringe several years ago, and it certainly fits the squeeze-everything-you-can-into-85-minutes brief. The aforementioned couple live in a dystopian society where a law is soon passed restricting individuals to 140 words a day. How, when, where and with whom one chooses to spend those words are the hypotheticals at the heart of this short play.
A curious and clever concept, for sure, and there’s an intriguing dynamic to the relationship, as well. Oliver is a leftie, anti-fascist musician, and Bernadette is a high-brow lawyer. The class divide this creates appears to be most of the issue of contention between the two of them across the plot, especially when Bernadette is more nonchalant about the proposed legislation and whether it will actually pass, compared to Oliver who sees it as an attack on freedom of speech.
The frustrating thing, though, is that Turner plays Oliver with this permanent angst stereotypical of any creative who isn’t quite sure how to express things, and we’re not entirely sure what it is that’s got him all worked up. Is it the unbearable reality of his partner being middle class when he’s working class? Is it her career? Is it the fact that the government are soon bringing in an utterly absurd law which will stifle communication? It could very well be all of these things at once, but the whole ‘can’t say too many words’ thing, together with the short scenes, don’t exactly help matters. It’s hard to see Oliver beyond the shallow image of him being annoyed at everything, and it’s underwhelming – even when the source of his frustration is quickly blurted out in the play’s penultimate scene.
How unfortunate, then, that one of the play’s most fascinating ideas is around how such a limiting rule on language can ‘lock in’ the image and impression of an individual when they were their whole, beautiful, unrestricted self. In the case of Oliver and Bernadette, their final conversation pre-ban is an unrelenting, fast-paced scramble to offload all of their relationship bug bears (and even at this point, we still don’t see much of Oliver beyond his general grievance).
Coleman’s bubbly, quirky and emotionally dynamic Bernadette stands out here, cutting things down to the wire as she expresses her disappointment at Oliver painting her as the ‘bad’ or ‘superior’ person because of her career. Things turn sour, and it’s the last full conversation they have before they have to offer a filtered version of each other. To Turner’s credit, we know exactly what Oliver means when he talks about ‘missing’ Bernadette – even when she’s right in front of him.
Indeed, overall, Coleman and her character are the most interesting to watch amid all the jumping forwards and backwards before and after the word ban. A previously energetic and giddy Bernadette – who, at one point, offers up a bizarre cheese grater metaphor nailed by Coleman in terms of a wonderfully absurd delivery – is reduced to an individual who is far more on edge and measured with her use of words. The actress’ range is exceptional. In fact, Bernadette being conservative and Oliver being liberal would be a pretty accurate summary of the conflict and interactions between the pair, if brevity was such a necessity for this review, as well.
Speaking of keeping things brief, there are a few creative decisions which are wonderfully minimalistic given the nature of the play. A lot of Aideen Malone’s lighting design comes down to short streaks of light which glide up the set as the couple reel off their remaining word counts towards the end of the day, with the higher numbers equalling longer lines. Equally impressive is Robert Jones’ set design, which comprises a curved wall of miscellaneous objects which are as materialistic as language becomes during the incredibly short amount of time with Oliver and Bernadette.
To argue that a play which is all about being succinct could do with being a little bit longer is to defeat its point entirely, and so it turns to what director Rourke misses in bringing it to the West End, and that’s a proper connection with Oliver. We get he’s a moany git and a bit of a d**k, but the play’s conclusion doesn’t exactly surprise us in confirming that to be true, in a way in which a more fleshed out Oliver could have at least provoked a more visceral response from the audience. In an otherwise fine production, this oversight – like the tropical fruit in its title – resulted in one feeling a tad bitter.
Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is now playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 March.
Captioned, audio described and British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performances will take place on 28 February, 7 March and 9 March respectively.
The show will then play at Manchester’s Opera House from 21-25 March, before having performances at Brighton’s Theatre Royal from 28 March to 1 April.
Production Images: Johan Persson.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.