Director Anna Ledwich helms the premiere of Richard Bean’s new play Kiss Me, which transfers to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios 2 in June, starring Claire Lams and Ben Lloyd-Hughes, following a sell-out run at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs. Anna was Olivier-nominated for her premiere production of James Fritz’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, which also transferred to Trafalgar from Hampstead in 2015…
Richard Bean is perhaps best known for making people laugh. He’s a dab hand at the escalating frenzy of farce, as well as a pleasurable punchline. Whilst One Man, Two Guvnors was a global juggernaut, his latest play, Kiss Me, is an intimate duet.
The play is set in London, in 1929. A man and a woman meet. She wants a baby, he wants to oblige. But it’s not as simple as that. Of course not. Both of them are driftwood from the literal and existential calamity of World War 1. Both are plagued by memories, regrets and guilt. Both are driven by a desire to create meaning and find connection. But, as they say, you can’t always get what you want.
I was intrigued by this play for many reasons. We’re familiar with the horrifying statistics of that conflict, the catastrophic loss of life, the bewildering erasure of entire communities who watched their men and boys march off to fight for king and country, then didn’t return.
But what of the women? In an age where at 25 you were past it, this was a generation left without their brothers, fathers and husbands. Women who were of marrying age, deprived of a mate and the opportunity to have children.
Both of them are driftwood from the literal and existential calamity of World War 1. Both are plagued by memories, regrets and guilt. Both are driven by a desire to create meaning and find connection.
What did they do? Yes, some formed powerful communions with other women, some found refuge in whatever work opportunities existed, but some had to find alternative methods of fulfilling that most primal of human needs.
Kiss Me takes this predicament as its starting point.
Our main character is a woman. She’s funny (naturally), vulnerable, curious, brave. She’s a victim of the times, but she’s no victim. She’s had a glimpse of personal freedom (she drives a lorry! she smokes!), yet she yearns for love. Her contradictions are recognisable, her plight startlingly contemporary. She is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to have a child – an often treacherous path for a single woman at that time. What courage! What blind faith! And yet ultimately, at what cost?
Her quest brings her into contact with the other player in this tale. Because it takes two to, you know…
Imagine the notion of “Make Love Not War” but with audience participation (don’t worry – your honour will be be preserved).
Her “suitor” is less transparent. More questions than answers accompany his appearance (for he does appear, seemingly summoned like a sex genie). He is mysterious, yet awkward. His insistence on anonymity (you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned either of the characters’ names) runs counter to the obvious intimacy of the sexual act. Most strikingly, his personal quest defines the act of love-making as an act of war. A war against the death, destruction and despair that they have both witnessed.
And this, to me, is the most tantalising idea offered by the play. It takes that most cliched response to death, the impulse to make love, and proposes complete philosophical (and physical) commitment to the cause. Imagine the notion of “Make Love Not War” but with audience participation (don’t worry – your honour will be be preserved). It seems a wildly hopeful and earnest belief (or perhaps a neat justification for having lots of sex).
Yet, in a current political climate that feels increasingly perilous and overwhelming, it strikes me that these small acts of communion and resistance are the strongest weapon we have. Perhaps our man is on to something. Kiss Me may be set in the past, but its concerns and ours touch fingers across the decades.
I won’t reveal what happens to our girl. That is for her to share with you. Suffice to say, like all good tales of love and woe – it started with a Kiss.