Review: Love Lab at Tristan Bates Theatre

Love Island meets Big Brother meets Black Mirror in Sam Coulson’s Love Lab, which sees two singletons locked in a room together for 7 days in an attempt to make them fall in love. It’s the latest reality TV show, watched by millions – but that’s little comfort to Perry (Michael Rivers), who doesn’t even remember applying. And he’s definitely not okay with being kidnapped and forced to live on cold baked beans for a week with a total stranger, while a cheerful disembodied voice asks them increasingly personal questions.

Photo credit: Sam Tibi

Livia (Harriet Barrow), on the other hand, is much more at ease. She’s watched the show before, which helps, but we also learn this isn’t her first time in front of the cameras. And she’s considerably more au fait with dating apps and social media than her selected match, who’d much rather meet up with his friends in person over a cuppa than follow them on Facebook. Livia’s even been allowed to keep her phone, whereas Perry’s is nowhere to be seen. She seems to have the upper hand, but then the mind games kick in and the balance of power begins to shift – until, in a final fiendish twist, the Love Lab pulls the rug from under both their feet.

Set in a perhaps not so distant future, Séan Aydon’s slick production embraces the technological theme with stark lighting and unsettling sound effects – and let’s not forget the frequent interruptions of friendly matchmaker Lucy, whose pleasant but mechanical enunciation begins to sound increasingly sinister as the play goes on. Actors Michael Rivers and Harriet Barrow have great chemistry as the mismatched pair, whether they’re engaging in rapid-fire banter or sharing a moment of genuine connection. In fact, despite some significant flaws both characters ultimately prove rather likeable, and by the end we’re almost rooting for them to run off into the sunset together.

My main complaint about Love Lab is actually a compliment in disguise: I wanted more. The premise is intriguing, and the play offers some fascinating (and slightly scary) insights about dating in the 21st century – but at only 50 minutes it feels too short, and as clever as the final twist is, it’s all a bit abrupt. Just as we feel like we’re starting to get to know the characters and what might have brought them here, it’s all over. I’d love to see a longer version of the play that lets us spend a bit more time in the Love Lab (and yes I appreciate the irony of that statement, given that Perry spends a significant amount of his time trying to get out).

Photo credit: Sam Tibi

Witty and insightful, the play asks “what is love?” in a world where off-line connection is starting to feel like the exception rather than the rule. We may lament the fact that nobody meets in person any more, but Love Lab leaves us wondering if that’s actually a self-fulfilling prophecy – are we all too glued to our dating apps to look up and see who’s right in front of us? The play doesn’t condemn online dating; even Perry acknowledges it’s a great idea in theory. But it still might make you stop and think twice the next time you swipe right.

Love Lab is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 18th August.

Interview: Hannah Samuels, Kiss Chase

Formed in 2017, Second Circle Theatre is an emerging theatre company of three core members and five associate artists, including street performers, musicians, visual artists and devisors. Last year they were finalists of the Pleasance Charlie Hartill Special Reserve, alongside emerging companies Unpolished Theatre and ThisEgg, and their debut show Meeting at 33 premiered to five-star reviews and a sell-out run. This month they’re bringing their second show, Kiss Chase, to The Bunker Theatre as part of the Breaking Out season.

“Our company aims to challenge what a night at the theatre looks like and how it is experienced, and put real people and stories at the heart of our work,” says artistic director Hannah Samuels, who founded Second Circle along with Topher Collins and Zoe Gibbons. “We want to encourage communities to feel connected to each other and individuals to feel less alone, and to create honest, visceral theatre in unique and intimate spaces. We aim to make work that can be and should be experienced by everyone. As a company, by revealing our hopes, fears, obsessions, anxieties and secrets, we strive to make work about the people we care about and the issues we want to scream about.”

Kiss Chase is a part-interactive, part-verbatim speed dating event, which explores the barriers we face when forming relationships, both in and out of love. “Audiences will be taken through a series of interactive tasks/games to develop their intimacy skills – as participants – as well as watching the narrative,” explains Hannah. “We’re inviting them into a world where they are immediately congratulated for taking the leap and entering the unknown. In keeping with our company style, minimal tech requirements and a reduced audience capacity will create an intimate experience for individuals as well as the collective group.

“During the event, the audience will go on dates, talk to characters and listen to songs, as we invite them to look up from their phones and to find commonality in shared experience. The original inspiration for the show sprung from the question: what is it about the pursuit of love that allows us to sometimes be treated badly in order to find it? As the show progressed we came across research calling London the ‘loneliness capital of Europe’ and we wanted to explore why this was and how/if this could be changed. With the rise of online dating, self-help books and the emergence of the Instagram filter, now feels an important time to look one another in the face.

“We’d like our audiences to feel changed in some way by the performance and connected to those they’ve only just met, having been through the experience together, and also to leave questioning what of Kiss Chase was performance and which parts were real. We want to celebrate a world where interactions happen face-to-face, drawing similarities between the ‘live-ness’ of seeing a theatrical event rather than something filmed. We hope to champion the forming of friendships as much as romantic relationships and to challenge who our significant other might be, and to create a shared audience experience celebrating similarities not differences.”

Kiss Chase has been in development since the beginning of 2018, and was still at a very early stage when it was selected for the Breaking Out season. “As with our first show, we always start developing a seed of an idea by doing lots of research,” explains Hannah. “The company have been out and about interviewing people across the country who have shared their stories of love, loss and friendship with us. We have also been going speed dating… a lot. Our associate artists have been involved in the development phase of the process, which is a really collaborative and fulfilling way of working. We’ve been building character through the verbatim interviews and experimenting with the game format of the show, and we’ve worked with Rich Maskey at Potential Difference, looking at ways to integrate technology into the show or to form part of our marketing campaign.

“The Breaking Out programme has quite literally helped us to ‘break out’ and launch ourselves into the industry with our second show, granting us the professional support to secure further funding and exposure as we strive to make life-changing theatre. Having worked alongside other emerging companies through the Pleasance Charlie Hartill tryouts 2017, we were delighted to be offered this opportunity to continue to learn from and support our peers. We are incredibly excited to develop our work with support from such an incredible and intimate venue, and we have already learned so much from the mentorship that’s been offered to us as part of the program. We love how The Bunker encourages shows and companies they work with to take risks and push the boundaries of conventional theatre. It has an incredible reputation for producing a hugely diverse programme and we share a passion for engaging the local community to tackle pressing personal/collective issues, with a unique approach.

“The Bunker is a perfect venue for Kiss Chase, local to us in East London, with a uniqueness and site-specific edge. The intimacy the space invites is amazing – it’s like watching a show in your lounge! Our first show was site-specific in a non-traditional theatre space, so we want to use the environment of The Bunker and all its various nooks and crannies when creating the work specifically for this venue. The mentorship we have already received from David and Josh has been invaluable at this early stage of the company’s growth, and we are really excited about continuing this relationship long after Breaking Out season is complete.”

Book now for Kiss Chase at The Bunker Theatre, on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 7pm from 11th June to 7th July.

Review: Love Me Now at Tristan Bates Theatre

Love Me Now might be Michelle Barnette’s debut play, but there’s nothing tentative about this funny and infuriatingly on-the-money portrayal of dating and sex in 2018. B is an independent, modern woman, who for the last few months has been enjoying a casual sexual relationship with A. He said it could be whatever she wanted it to be – except she doesn’t really know what that is any more, and it turns out he didn’t really mean it anyway.

The fact that B (Helena Wilson) is not called A in her own story is our first clue that all is not well, even though initially the arrangement seems to be working out for both of them. It soon becomes clear that A (Alistair Toovey) repeatedly puts his own needs and desires – sexual and otherwise – before B’s, and on the one occasion she doesn’t let him get away with it, he labels her a psychopath, tries to physically and sexually assault her, and then tells her not to play the victim. Later, she starts dating C (Gianbruno Spena), who appears to be A’s opposite but turns out to be just as obnoxious and casually sexist – the only difference being he’s less upfront about it. And somehow in both cases, B ends up getting the blame when the relationship crashes and burns.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

And it’s with this important point that the play really makes an impact. We live in supposedly enlightened times, where anyone – male or female – can have any kind of relationship they want free of judgment, but the truth is attitudes haven’t really changed that much. So it’s fine for A to have six sexual partners at once, but if B does the same, she’s easy – and when it turns out she doesn’t, she’s a tease. On their third date, C presents B with a bracelet that his niece made for her, but when she speaks jokingly about reclaiming her virginity, he dumps her (over voicemail) because she’s “obviously looking for something serious”. She literally can’t win – and it’s maddening to watch, mostly because it’s so depressingly relatable.

In fact, the play thrives on its audience’s rage, with several deliberately provocative lines from both men that can’t fail to get a reaction. It’s quite something to not only see and hear but actually feel a theatre full of people respond, spontaneously and in perfect unison, to the actions of a character on stage – whether that reaction is hearty laughter (of which there is a lot) or shocked disgust (of which there is also quite a bit).

All three actors get their performances spot-on. Helena Wilson demonstrates an incredible emotional range, from confident and flirtatious in those fleeting moments where B has the upper hand, to shocked, angry and confused by the way both men have treated her. As A, Alistair Toovey has an irresistible boyish charm that leaves us in no doubt why B is attracted to him, but is just as convincing in his character’s darker moments; the climactic scene between them is genuinely frightening in its intensity. Despite having considerably less stage time, Gianbruno Spena is great as the dull and patronising C – and gets arguably one of the best audience reactions with his stunningly ill-judged attempt to stop B talking.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

The play makes use of multiple timelines, so that as well as B’s short-lived relationship with C, we also drop in on her time with A at various points. Jamie Armitage’s production neatly separates these moments in time with the help of Ben Jacobs’ excellent lighting design – but does little else to distinguish between them, which leaves the audience a little confused, particularly towards the end of the play, as to whether we’re in the past or present.

This small complaint aside, Love Me Now is a brilliant debut from Michelle Barnette. Her writing is witty and insightful, not afraid to go to some pretty bleak places, and I guarantee there will be something in it that everyone can relate to. Will it make you laugh? Definitely. Will it make you angry? Absolutely. Will it make you consider giving up dating altogether and getting a cat instead? Quite possibly. But should you go and see it? 100% yes.

Love Me Now is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 14th April.

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