Friday 3 March 2023

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons

 Harold Pinter Theatre

11th February, 2023, matinee

Have you said that before?

After several successful fringe productions, Sam Steiner’s 2015 play Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons has now been revived in the West End in an assured production by Josie Rourke. Set in a society about to pass a law which limits people to using no more than 140 words a day, Steiner explores its implications on a relationship and the limits of language itself.

Looking at the play text, there is an economy not only to Steiner’s dialogue (partly necessitated by the plot) but also to the stage directions. A simple * denotes a scene change and there’s no indication of time or place. Well, that’s not quite true. The length of Bernadette and Oliver’s exchanges and the care with which they use language is a clue to when the scene might be set, even before it’s fully clear what’s going on. We soon sense that the scenes are not in chronological order, with moments from later in their relationship sitting cheek by jowl with scenes of before they started dating. For any production of Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons (no word count in this review!), a decision needs to be made about how and if such changes in time are presented. Cleverly, Rourke keeps the breaks between scenes short and sharp, a slight change in lighting the only thing marking a new scene as if it’s a new breath. It is also clear that the scenes have been split into ‘pre-word limit’ and ‘post-word limit’. Aideen Malone’s lighting bathes the ovular playing space in a warm glow for scenes before the law has passed whereas scenes after have a cold blue tint, as if the world is bereft of the richness and creativity that language affords. Like the text, Robert Jones’ design also has a clean aesthetic. Shelves filled with the detritus of everyday life line the back of the stage: pots and pans, a toaster, a car wheel. Malone uses neon strip lights to compartmentalise the shelves in different ways. It’s a nod, perhaps, to language being another dispensable object which we take for granted.

Both Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman are believable and very likeable as the couple, Oliver and Bernadette. Oliver protests the bill, passionately arguing it’s a censorship on free speech. Bernadette on the other hand is more hesitant: ‘Words are the weapons of the middle class’ she tells Oliver, believing the limit may democratise how we communicate. However, her workplace is partly exempt which later causes tension between them. Interestingly, parliament is another exemption; one rule for them and all that. It’s an interesting concept and you can’t help but wonder about the consequences if characters do go over the daily limit. Steiner instead uses it as an opportunity to explore the effect it has on how we communicate, prompting us to interrogate every wasted word in our own conversations.

Faced with the prospect, how do Oliver and Bernadette choose to spend their verbal exchanges? Is it more important to compliment your lover’s hair or to tell them to put more cayenne in the beans? What becomes of connections and relationships without qualifiers, fillers and hesitations? In a sequence of short scenes in which Oliver and Bernadette say ‘I love you’, we hear the multitude of different ways those three words can be said: to comfort, to celebrate, to apologise, to reassure, simply out of habit. Both meaningfully and unmeaningfully they are just three of thousands of words they said to each other each day throughout their relationship. This sits next to a scene where they’re forced to contract the words to ‘Lovou’ which somehow loses its depth of meaning. The placing of scenes seems more important as the play goes on. The scene after the word limit comes into effect is a scene where they met at a pet cemetery. They talk about nothing in particular and yet there’s so much meaning beneath the words. Is language purely functional, does it only exist for its surface meaning?

I’ve heard the play compared to the works of Caryl Churchill, particularly Blue Heart (1997). But I think there’s less of a disconnect with Steiner’s play, I felt more involved with the characters. Such a major revival now will surely help to establish it as a contemporary classic. It’s a compelling play with a puzzle-like quality, and I found myself becoming more absorbed as it went on, making connections with earlier (later?) scenes.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18th March followed by a short tour to Manchester and Brighton.

Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman in Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons. Credit: Johan Persson

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