Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons review – Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman star in sharp drama
Does a revival of Sam Steiner’s 2015 fringe sensation about a state-imposed “hush law” which limits our spoken word count resonate differently today, and on a West End stage? For some in our age of 24/7 online over-sharing, more quietude might sound like a utopia rather than the dystopia it is here, although the play is as much about resistance as it is about language.
This brave new world of 140 daily spoken words, at most, is refracted through a couple navigating love and intimacy and Josie Rourke’s production is driven by a starry duo in Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner. She is Bernadette, a divorce lawyer with a working-class chip; he is Oliver, a musician with family privilege and a fragile ego. With a play that rose from the fringe circuit, Rourke’s great accomplishment here is that it looks fit for a West End stage, despite being a prop-free two-hander, while retaining its breezy minimalism.
The narrative is non-linear with flashbacks or forwards in the pair’s relationship, rather like several other recently revived dramas, such as Constellations and Lungs. Oliver is the activist, Bernadette the pragmatist, and we see our contemporary concerns in their discussions on the necessity of public protest.
Coleman and Turner are endearing together, although they remain cutesy for too long, repeating riffs on their first meeting in a pet cemetery. The script repeats its ideas on protest too but has deft scenes that show how words can conceal and also how apparent banalities can carry value and meaning. There is good use of silence as the couple hit the buffers of wordlessness, and their relationship gathers power when the actors drop their romcom routine and become more real and tender, albeit rather late in the day.
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Robert Jones’s stage design is a backdrop of compartmentalised items, the set curving around the couple like a forced hug. But as they begin to use language in liberating ways, it opens up to more space and greater abstraction. There are a few lovely late scenes when the couple use words not for their literal meanings but underlying effects, singing and creating a non-verbal, embodied language between them. If words are rationed or banned, this play suggests, we will find other ways to express our love.
Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, until 18 March; Manchester Opera House, 21 to 25 March; and Theatre Royal, Brighton, 28 March to 1 April.