Austerity sucks. People all over the country have had their benefits cut, work opportunities reduced and wages frozen. Austerity has badly affected young people at the onset of their careers, inhibiting the making of an independent, adult life. Young couples don’t have it any easier, even if one of the pair has a great job. For Bernadette and Oliver, life’s about to get even harder. They live in a Britain where the government isn’t just limiting welfare, arts council grants and junior doctors’ salaries. The newest austerity measure is on their speech – not what they say, but how much. Every individual is limited to 140 words a day in Sam Steiner’s Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons.
Steiner uses the word limit to frame Bernadette and Oliver’s journey as a couple and their efforts to overcome obstacles within their relationship. The audience sees them meet at a cat funeral, wake up together for the first time, make up coded abbreviations to use when the Hush Law comes into effect. They fight, they fuck, they count their words, and it’s lovely despite the dark premise. Euan Kitson (Oliver) and Beth Holmes (Bernadette) are charmingly intimate with each other, as they should be after their runs at Latitude, Edinburgh and Warwick Arts Centre. Fundamentally a love story, these two do their best to get by and stay together even though they’re chalk and cheese. Despite stylized blocking and choreography, and no physical contact for the entire play, these young actors are sweetly genuine.
The short scenes alternate between their pre- and post- speech limited relationship, with transitions well marked with movement and the use of microphones by director Ed Franklin. Steiner’s slow plot reveal keeps the audience keen, as do his conflicting characters trying to make it work one day at a time. The amount of time passing isn’t clear though, and there are logistical points that are ignored. Has the government installed internal speech limiters in everyone? If not, why don’t they ignore the law in the privacy of their homes? How does Bernadette go to work as a courtroom lawyer with a mere 140 words? How do they remember their word count? So many questions go unanswered which make the situation implausible, particularly with naturalistic performances.
Also jarring with the performance style is the abstract movement direction/choreography. With real-life dialogue and performance, the angular, distant movements provide visual variation that are pleasing to look at, but interfere with the actors’ connection to each other. In a world where words can’t be the sole means of communicating between a couple, there’s a blatant lack of contact even though they are often physically close. It makes sense to use movement to indicate scene changes, but the unfaltering style Franklin chooses is coldly repetitive. There’s a sense of showing off his cleverness or wanting to veer away from naturalism just for the sake of it. However, his sense of timing and interpretation of a script with little more than the dialogue and scene delineations is poignant and intuitive.
Considering production company Walrus are fresh out of Warwick uni and Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is the creative team’s first professional endeavor, this slightly dystopian two-hander is an excellent piece of theatre. With no set and a focus on the words that the government brutally restricts, this tale of young love is wonderfully performed and an easy, touching watch.
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