Most single women have at some point bemoaned the lack of decent men. That throwaway line is put into sobering perspective in Richard Bean’s Kiss Me, where it’s quite literally true. It’s 1929, and Stephanie (not her real name) is a 32-year-old widow who wants a baby. Faced with a male population that’s been tragically depleted by World War 1, she finds herself forced to take an unconventional path. Enter Dennis (not his real name), a father-for-hire employed by the mysterious Dr Trollop, who by all accounts is extremely good at his job – as long as he stays within the parameters. That means no kissing on the lips, no real names, no sharing of any personal information, and definitely no second meetings.
Within minutes, we find ourselves drawn into a scenario that has the potential to be both very funny and horribly sad – and Kiss Me delivers on both fronts. This intense two-hander unfolds in Stephanie’s bedroom, with a mirrored back wall that brings the audience right into the heart of the action and makes us privy to every intimate detail of her life and loves. She’s a modern woman who smokes and drives a munitions lorry, and has no qualms about speaking her mind or standing up for her rights. In fact she seems incapable of holding anything back, even when she tries; in a powerful performance, Claire Lams reveals just as much in Stephanie’s pensive, silent moments as she does with all her character’s nervous chatter.
In contrast, Ben Lloyd-Hughes’ Dennis is a stickler for propriety, yet not without passion; he’s a soldier on his own personal mission, driven by an intense guilt over having survived the war when so many others didn’t. We never see him enter the room; the lights go up on each scene and there he is (director Anna Ledwich describes him gleefully in her programme notes as “seemingly summoned like a sex genie”). His speech, unlike Stephanie’s, is slow and considered, and where she resorts often to humour as a means of self-defence, he seems to hardly know what a joke is. They’re total opposites, yet somehow fit together perfectly (in a nice touch, he often finishes her sentences when the right word escapes her), and it’s no surprise when their initial encounter leads to something more, however doomed their relationship may feel from the start.
The chemistry between the two characters is as believable as it is surprising, and the desperate, relatable human desires that drive each of them toward the other make them easy to invest in emotionally; the play’s final revelation drew shocked gasps from more than one audience member. This does come with a side effect, though: because we can so easily relate to the characters, some of the more intimate scenes become quite awkward to watch – Stephanie’s own discomfort during her first meeting with Dennis is infectious, and her later willingness to chat at length about her clitoris equally disconcerting. (For different reasons, it’s also hard not to be taken aback by the use of the term “minger” to describe an unattractive woman – despite the hasty explanation that it’s an old Scottish word.)
The play’s conclusion is unexpectedly intriguing; we’re left with a good deal of unanswered questions about the future and the past for both characters, and still without a complete understanding of their motivations. This hint that the story may not be quite over is rather comforting, despite the frustrating knowledge that we’ll never know for sure what lies ahead.
Funny, poignant and offering a fresh perspective on the horrors of war, Kiss Me features two excellent performances and has an emotional and, to a certain degree, political heart that’s as relevant today as it would have been in 1929 – perhaps even more so.
Kiss Me is at Trafalgar Studio 2 until 8th July.