Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol
Words. They come cascading out of us, on average 123,205,750 words during a lifetime. They help define us: the gift of the gab finds us jobs and a way with words helps find a way into beds. Without them, who are we? In Sam Steiner’s clever work, written, debuted and becoming toast of the town while still a student at Warwick University, a limit is placed on how many words a day can be used. No more than 140 a day can be uttered. What does this do for a couple who are still getting to know each other? Can a relationship survive when one of the sole means of communication is cut off?
On a second viewing of Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons it reveals itself to be a scalpel-sharp and highly entertaining hour of theatre, though one whose issues rise further to the surface. In its favour; the issues it tackles (surveillance states, the battle of the sexes in the workplace and the importance of language in a modern culture that is gradually eroding it) feel somehow even more essential now than they did a couple of years ago.
The central relationship between trainee lawyer Bernadette and musician Oliver feels honest and true, tentative first steps, turning into blazing rows, sweet makeups and agonised silences reveal guilty secrets. Ok, so it sometimes appears quirky for its own sake, as student work is sometimes wont to do, their initial meeting and early dates at a pet cemetery seem one step too left-field, but its premise is sharp and its sci-fi predictions grounded in just enough truth to feel terrifyingly palpable. You could easily imagine it as an episode of Charlie Booker’s Black Mirror.
Yet once you know where it’s going, its blueprint feels a little shaky. Although running just a little over an hour it doesn’t quite give enough to justify its runtime, all Steiner’s ideas are shot by its half and the rest just beats the same point’s home to ever decreasing effect. Its text always fizzes enough not to cause boredom but by its end, it is hard to shake off the soapy relationship drama that has taken over with a climax, that however well-acted does not bruise the heart as it should. If Pirandello cast some characters in search of an author here he would be in need of an ending.
BOVTS graduating director Caroline Lang and her designer Emily Leonard play up the horrific dystopian present more than in the original production. As we encounter a world where the characters find words capped, the stage is lit alone by a couple of naked lightbulbs, pre-bill passing the stage is flooded with light. It’s an effective visual motif, the light stripped from the world as language is removed. At one point Oliver accuses Bernadette of being like an Internet browser, countless tabs open at once, concentration split between sites, but Steiner is aware that this is modern culture, our focus split many ways. Scenes cross cut in a blink and this production, more than the original, ensures clear delineation between the scenes, blissful past making way for terrifying present.
Lang ensures strong performances from her two actors Kate Reid and Alex Wilson. Reid in particular catches Bernadette’s strong work ethic and need to succeed in life, as well as the crushing reality she faces when she realises a bill she never believed would pass comes into effect. Since the last time I saw this work Brexit and Trump has left me and many others in the same wide mouthed shock, this feeling of complete disbelief conveyed of a world changing for the worst seems much more believable than when I saw it in the early days of 2016. Wilson is saddled with the more unlikeable role, the social crusader with the swaggering superiority of an idealist and the one who ultimately causes splinters in the relationship. The text doesn’t exactly paint him as the villain but Reid is so charming and open and true that, in this production at least, Oliver can’t help but come across as a bit of a prick.
Both performances- as would be expected from graduating actors of the school- are technically assured yet don’t have the lived in feel with the text that the original cast from Warwick brought to it. These feel like performances, good ones, but performances nevertheless. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air intro rap, a moment that sees them lose word count in one exhilarating protest is less a showpiece here, taken at a slower lick and with less apocalyptical energy. In the original it was the works defining moment, here it blends more seamlessly into the whole.
Opening the Director Cuts season 2018 it is good to get reacquainted with Lemons again, without doubt the most successful student show of the 21st century. If the production backs up a hunch that it is not quite a modern classic it’s still a highly enjoyable take on a play that shows language is a right that shouldn’t be taken lightly.