18 January 2023
LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS (Harold Pinter Theatre) Review
I had such high expectations given the cast and the premise… Oliver (Aidan Turner) and Bernadette (Jenna Coleman) live in a futuristic England where everyone is limited to 140 words per day. You can’t cheat by writing them or signing them (yet, seemingly and confusingly, Morse code is ok). The play jumps back and forth between the times before and after “The Quietude Law”, so there is sufficient story progression unimpacted by the word limit.
There is a lot about the story that’s lacking. Firstly, it’s not at all clear how the 140-word law is enforced. Sure, it’s easy to say, “let everyone have their own take on it” or “it’s not important to the plot”, but a hole that big separates us from the story because it doesn’t feel real. Secondly, there is no mention of what the penalty is for breaking the law. Again, it’s too easy to say that it doesn’t matter because the play is not about that. But it is important, or at least it should’ve been. One of the key conflicts in the play (before the law is passed) is Oliver campaigning against the law, not only because it’s a ridiculous ones, but also because the rich and the privileged will always find a way around it, whilst Bernadette supports the law, saying that it’ll be a great equaliser. Eventually she does change her point of view a bit, but it’s done in a very weak way and without much argumentative support. Had penalties been part of the plot, especially had they been just fees, it could’ve been a great pivot for her: the rich pay and continue talking, whilst the poor have to stay silent… Thirdly, as they talk, both Bernadette and Oliver seem to instantly know how many words they have left at every point in time. How did this extraordinary ability come about? Lastly, there is a small matter of “Chekhov’s girlfriend”: Oliver goes to protests organised by the woman who is not simply his friend, but his ex-girlfriend. The minute that point gets stressed and over-stressed at the start of the show, you know that he’ll be hooking up with her behind Bernadette’s back at some point before the show is over. The set-up is so cliche, it’s tiresome. The overall idea for the play is unique, timely, and interesting, but the execution is full of holes, unfortunately.
Turner and Coleman do a great job delivering their characters’ personalities, but there is very little chemistry between them. It’s surprising given that they are both such strong actors and that the people they play are meant to be in a long-term relationship. There are scenes where both actors deliver pure joy (the singing-dancing one, for example), and there are scenes that feel underthought somehow (especially the “lemons lemons lemons lemons lemons” one, which, incidentally, would’ve been somewhat improved by losing 2 out of 5 lemons). For a play about word limit, Turner and Coleman are drowning in words. The words just keep coming so much so that, an hour into the play, it becomes difficult to enjoy the acting craft or even process everything they are saying. The play was advertised as 1h 15min, but actually ran 20 minutes longer. Even so, it felt like a 3-hr slog, which is down not to the pacing, but the neverending words.
Josie Rourke’s direction makes the most out of the play. Not sure who’s at fault for the lack of chemistry I mentioned. Kudos to Aideen Malone, the lighting designer for this production, for delineating very clearly the “before” and the “after”. The set by Robert Jones seemed befitting the play, but then it changed at the very end to something I found puzzling and unnecessary. My friend who saw the show on the same night, though we weren’t sat together, thought it had to do with a line in the play, one about how everything was in place then exploded then settled again (I’m paraphrasing). She is probably right, but I think it would’ve been totally fine if the set just stayed what it was throughout.
It’s certainly a show worth seeing, but it’s probably best to curtail expectations so to be pleasantly surprised rather than disappointed. The play dances around some important topics and ideas, but never really takes a stand or resolves anything. In fact, it’s a play about a couple’s relationship with background arguments about a law and, ultimately, trying to cope with a new way of communicating rather than a play about freedom, personal rights, or privilege. The daily minutia takes form we’d never seen before, but it’s daily minutia nonetheless.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £7 (largely for the acting).