I briefly considered writing a 140-word review of Sam Steiner’s Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, but quickly decided against it. For one thing, if the play proves anything it’s that working with such a limited quota is difficult. Also, I just wasted five on the title.
So, in significantly more than 140 words: what’s it all about? Well, it’s a dystopian drama in which the British government – for reasons that are never really made clear – has just imposed a new law that limits everyone to 140 words of communication a day. The political and personal ramifications of this play out through the eyes of a young couple, Bernadette (Jemima Murphy) and Oliver (Charlie Suff), who only realise once every word counts how much they’ve so far left unsaid.
The plot has many frustrating gaps in it (why the ban was imposed, what types of communication it covers, how it’s monitored, what happens if you go over the limit, or if it’s even possible to do so…) but nonetheless the play does raise some fascinating questions about how we communicate with each other and the way we use language. Oliver, a musician and staunch opponent of the ban, points out the social and economic value of words; 140 words means a lot more to someone who has to go out and find work than it does to someone who’s already financially stable – like, for instance, his lawyer girlfriend. Then there’s the way words become a symbol of how much each values the relationship, as Bernadette repeatedly arrives home each evening having saved fewer words than Oliver has, and how the ban forces them to be creative and come up with their own private “couple’s code”. It’s particularly interesting to note that in some ways the two of them actually communicate more after the ban, revealing truths that were always avoided before, when it was easy to change the subject or “talk about it later”.
Unsurprisingly given the subject matter, the spaces between words carry just as much weight as the words themselves, and this comes across very effectively in director Hamish Clayton’s production. The play’s script is made up of a dizzying number of very short scenes, some of them merely seconds long, and every action that takes place in between – even something as simple as moving a chair or getting into bed – feels carefully considered to ensure that not a single moment of the 80-minute run time is wasted. The performances given by Jemima Murphy and Charlie Suff are similarly meticulous, the two of them saying just as much with their movements, gestures and facial expressions as they do with their dialogue. Meanwhile Gareth Rowntree’s set differentiates with admirable simplicity between the play’s different timelines; post-ban, a light is illuminated for each character, which goes from white to red when they hit zero.
Though written in 2015, the play’s parallels with Brexit are plain to see: the debate over the ban splits the nation, nobody really expects it to go through, and when it does there are a host of unforeseen consequences, most of which affect the poorest in society. The programme acknowledges this relevance, but there’s more than enough going on here to ensure that the play stands on its own, and that even those who are sick of hearing about Brexit (which is, let’s face it, most of us) shouldn’t be put off. A polished and carefully directed production, Lemons is the kind of thought-provoking play that keeps giving, with plenty of material to ensure an excellent debate in the bar afterwards.
Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is at Barons Court Theatre until 26th May.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉