“Words, words, words,” Eliza Doolittle was sick of them particularly as empty descriptions of the love she wanted a practical demonstration of. Sam Steiner’s play Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is first filled with too many of them and then not enough for Bernadette and Oliver, a couple who struggle to express their feelings for one another no matter how many or how few words they are permitted. Making its West End debut following an impressive rise from small regional premiere in 2015 to Edinburgh and London fringe, Steiner’s play, directed by Josie Rourke, is a rom-com of sorts filled with the minutiae and pitfalls that couples experience when getting to know one another and as their relationship matures and fades. But it is also concerned with class distinctions, inequality in various forms and political protest in which language and its control is constrained and then weaponised.
The romantic comedy standards give Steiner’s play its shape – there is a quirky meet-cute in which Bernadette and Oliver get to know one another in a pet cemetery by the grave of a dead cat that belonged to neither one of them. They go on dates, have ‘the talk’ about ex’s, have fights about trivial things that mask larger problems in their relationship, they move in together, endure one another’s colleagues and find themselves drifting apart as they both become complacent about what they have. So as their differences become obstacles rather than exciting opportunities, the play’s emotional stakes rise.
Bernadette is a lawyer who doesn’t always listen to what Oliver is saying and seem to resent any mention of her working class background and the empathetic or political obligations it assumes. Oliver is a musician with middling success but mostly an activist attending regular meetings and marches, spending time with a former girlfriend who he cautiously talks about and fails to accept his current partner’s need for silence. So far, so standard, but it is what the playwright does with this bundle of traits and devices that makes Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons more than a generic stage romance.
This is a play that has quite a meticulous structure but appears smooth and unruffled to an audience. There are no Acts or Scenes across the continuous 90-minute performance, but there are frequent time leaps indicated by a beat and a subtle change in Aideen Malone’s lighting design. These take the characters forward a few hours, days, possibly months and years without giving an exact indication of how much time may have passed, leaving that entirely to the audience and the performers to determine. There is also no suggestion that we see this relationship necessarily in chronological order, only a cluster of scenarios that happen ‘before’ and some ‘after’ a momentous change. Within these segments, dialogue is loaded quite differently and scenes occur at different paces. While some events certainly happen in succession, it is not at all certain that the audience is seeing the couple evolve exactly as they did. And it gives the play energy, forcing the viewer to piece together what happened from the quite selective words the playwright has chosen to represent how this couple verbalise their time together.
And Steiner adds further degrees of complexity to this by also toying with the audience’s exposure to those conversations into which we arrive at different points. Sometimes, the characters have just met, beginning with a “hello” as they get home from work or meet for a date, but more often we enter a conversation with an exchange already underway or drawing to a close. Like a scripted reality show, Steiner has only given his creations so many words to use and the confines of this are all the audience has to understand and connect their story together. Beyond the snapshots provided, their conversations and arguments must go on in oblivion and, unlike their television counterparts, real exchanges don’t just stop awkwardly when the script runs out. Arguments recur, they go round-and-round while even lovers at their happiest continuously talk reassuringly of their affection for one another or all the things their life together might, could and should be. Even in the ‘before’ period, therefore, Steiner is already limiting the characters to small amounts of words that must knowingly act as proxy for a much broader, fuller life together – a task made infinitely more difficult but somehow more moving in the ‘after’ part of the play.
So, before and after what? This is the second major device that Steiner employs that cuts through the scenario that Steiner has established, the passing of a “hush” law that limits all human speech to only 140 words per day, and it creates two dramatic consequences within Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons. The first is to focus the protest sections of the play around the shifting emotional connection of the couple, concentrating on fighting against the planned law and then advocating for its amendment and repeal which gives Oliver direct purpose in the plot, a place to express his desire for freedom from State control and a life away from Bernadette where his primary passion and focus exist.
As a result, this also becomes the root of their many disagreements, with Bernadette taking the potential law less seriously at first and later falsely reassuring her boyfriend that it would be possible to change it within a few months of imposition. It moves the standard relationship into a domestic dystopia where things are essentially the same but different enough to expose the pre-existing flaws in their connection that play-out across the remainder of the story. This ‘after’ section essentially carves the play and this couple’s settled perfect life in two, making it impossible for them to ignore their problems with even fewer words to hide behind.
And that leads into the second consequence for Bernadette and Oliver which is the technical challenge of communicating months of their relationship within set counts for each of them. Steiner generates both tension and pity by changing the number of words left to the pair in each of their conversations and this often happens in ways that reflect their emotional investment in the relationship and how rocky their connection becomes over time. Occasionally they try to save words for each other as a gesture of love, storing over a hundred by the time they come home, but in other scenes one or both of them have few words left, stilting what little communication is possible and forcing them to make choices about how they eek our their attempts to communicate or throw them away on an argument – the title itself coming from an exasperated waste of pointless words as tensions boil over.
The frustration and pain of two people with a lot to talk about yet unable to interact in full sentences becomes very moving as well as comedic, and with each scene beginning with an announcement of their remaining count, the struggle to engage is a testament to the technical challenge Steiner has set himself here. Conveying so much with so little is a balance of dialogue and creating moments where only one person has enough words to speak. Whether they choose to conciliate or attack thus becomes increasingly pointed.
Josie Rourke’s production is beautifully balanced and predicated on the deep connection between two people that is, by definition, unspoken. This is where the Director begins, before the words are introduced by creating a place in which the characters are physically comfortable with one another so that they can lounge, sit and stand at ease together. Without the distraction of a physical set, these tacit signals and the specificity of the words themselves at every point in the play are then magnified, conjuring up the life of Oliver and Bernadette entirely and helping the audience to invest in their story, even as the ways that this is communicated it to the audiences changes as the play unfolds.
Like her production of Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse where the interaction between Isabella and Angelo was loaded with the things the characters could never say but still managed to express, Rourke also brings that intensity to Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, understanding the slow burn inevitability of the finale. Though Steiner reduces the words as the play continues (occasionally cutting back in time to the chatty good days to show how they once were), Rourke fills that space with something else instead. Where dialogue once existed that absence fills up with a palpable loss, fear and the sorrow of dimming love that the characters try so hard to keep alive.
Jenna Coleman made a significant impression when she made her stage debut in All My Sons at the Old Vic in 2019, and appears here with all the confidence of a seasoned theatre performer. Her Bernadette manages to be both frustrating and put upon, quick to rise to the bait and calmly indulgent of her partner’s whims. She is a complex woman, never wanting to be defined by whatever reductive description is applied to her and Coleman’s Bernadette reacts with equal irritation to the words ‘lawyer’ and ‘working class,’ seeing only the weighty expectations they bring and struggling always to break free of such confining terminology. And Coleman’s performance is full of those many layers, capturing the excitement of love in the beginning, the mundanity of routine and the present absence as her character begins to check out of the relationship. There remains a quiet sadness that follows which Coleman makes just as contained as the words that describe it, trying hard not to hurt her partner but equally bewildered by how they got to this place.
All of this is underpinned by the chemistry that Coleman has developed with co-star Aidan Turner, an ease with one another that makes their individual and collective performance so engaging. Turner loves a chance to flex some comedy muscles, and while his television roles have tended towards the terribly serious, the stage seems to give the actor a freedom that opens up his performances. Following a hilarious and critically acclaimed turn in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons he is the more gregarious character who finds it hard to contain this emotion within the words that Steiner slowly takes away from him. Oliver has lots of feelings about the world, politics, himself ad his relationship but Turner still makes him seem easy going, caring, even fun, someone that Bernadette would want to be with. But as their situation deteriorates the extent of his concealment becomes clear.
It is an interesting line for Turner to tread, between the overt honesty of his character and the selective holding back of information that contributes to the certainty of its ending, as though by hiding it Oliver can stave-off that inevitability a little longer. The growing jadedness that Turner finds adds an interesting dimension as another relationship fades which Oliver regrets but cannot seem to stop. The fast-paced interchanges with Coleman are some of the production highlights as arguments and truth-telling sessions about their foibles and annoyances become nicely tragicomic.
Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is a play about the relationship formed by words and the words that form a relationship, of which Steiner suggests are too many and too few at the wrong times. Bernadette and Oliver find that they say a lot when they don’t need to and cannot say enough when they most need to talk. Rourke’s production underscores how entirely the playwright controls how this relationships is expressed with Robert Jones’s curved shelving design highlighting the materiality of the life between them, the objects and possessions that wordlessly suggest who they are or were or have never quite been. As the ordered shelves disappear into the air, their life together comes apart with it with a few remaining items, like the couple, suspended in limbo. Are they or aren’t they? But by this point, there are no words left.