Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 18 March 2023
Sam Steiner’s play has followed a well-documented path from student drama to West End, thanks partly to the simplicity of its central concept (a society much like ours restricts everyone to a maximum of 140 words, written or spoken, per day), but also its structure as a two-hander with a pair of attractive parts for an attractive male and an attractive female lead.
From the balcony of the Harold Pinter Theatre, it seems like a play better suited to the Paines Plough mobile Roundabout auditorium where it became known. The play’s strongest suites are charm and intimacy, but it’s hard for even the most skilled performers to hit the back of the stalls with their loveability. Aidan Turner (who seems to have grown a beard during the run) and Jenna Coleman give it a good try though, and their interaction is convincing and enjoyable.
Set on a Roundabout-sized carpet circle walled in with domestic detritus, the action focuses on the two actors, who meet, get together and cycle through the phases of a normal relationship while politic turns dark in the background. Too much of the play, around two thirds, is spent on the build-up which, although nicely written, does not tell us enough that is new about the way men and women relate to one another.
The political concept, dystopian and fascinating, has great potential that is not entirely fulfilled. Steiner seems unsure whether the word limit is to be taken entirely literally, or whether it is primarily a metaphor. If the former, the writing needs to be more precise, with word limits actually enforced in each conversation rather than only sometimes. The absurdities of a situation where a couple cannot communicate because they have used up all their language elsewhere has potential that seems under-explored.
As a metaphor, the idea is powerful and it is hard to believe that Lemons… predates the pandemic. The sense of claustrophobia, and the need to make the best of an inconceivable loss of freedom feels darkly familiar. The play also contrasts unjustified male certainty with restricted female expression in a way that feels agenda-setting for 2015, when it was written.
In the end, Lemons… falls between stools, providing neither a dystopian alternative near future nor a full exploration of character. Neither of the two characters, Oliver and Bernadette, feels entirely real. Nevertheless, it is a play that asks questions and at its best makes the audience shiver in recognition as well as laugh in sympathy.