REVIEW: Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons

An ingenious take on dystopia, spun around a troubled love story

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“There are things you can’t say in 140 words.”

Bernadette (Teuta Day) and Oliver (Harry Redding) meet in a pet cemetery. Some months later, the couple’s relationship – already not without its tensions – is hit by the shockwaves of a new Hush Law: under the law, people can only speak 140 words per day.

Sam Steiner’s short, ingenious script, written while he was still an undergrad at Warwick, was a smash hit at the 2015 and 2016 Edinburgh Fringes: it stays zoned in on Bernadette and Oliver’s touching, imperfect love story while also exploring the political and social repercussions of the Hush Law. A reinterpretation of Orwell’s  ‘Newspeak’ with a sharply modern feel, Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons watches its young couple attempt to cope practically and emotionally with the language restriction.

A Hush Law suddenly seems very politically resonant

They develop codes, but what if one person forgets? What if you get home from work and your partner has run out of words? What if the microwave breaks? And what about the things that have always been difficult to say, even before the law?

The play’s success hinges on the actors’ chemistry, and Day and Redding are mostly successful on this front – Bernadette is vibrant and neurotic, her anxious, expressive manner thrown into relief by the more neutral and stable Oliver. The gulf between them drives the beauty and the conflict in the play, a gap they struggle to fill with the right words. Their attempts are at times beautiful, at times wryly funny (this is often a very funny play), at times frustrating.

Images by Tian Chan

On the one hand, I love the dynamic between Day and Redding and I think it often works beautifully, but whilst Redding’s portrayal of Oliver as somewhat emotionally closed-off plays convincingly into the couple’s fraught moments, it means he somewhat fails to convince at times as Oliver the passionate revolutionary. I think some of this may have been first-night tensions, however, since his portrayal somewhat freed up in the latter part of the play, making some already touching scenes between the couple glow with warmth.

The premise of Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is stunning – original, clever, heartfelt, politically engaged without being preachy. Some aspects of the play flesh out the brilliance of the premise beautifully: the non-chronological timeline that jumps between pre- and post- the Hush Law, and the gorgeous scenes where Bernadette and Oliver stumble through coping when the law passes, from the couple spending all their words on the Spice Girls’ ‘If You Wanna Be My Lover’ to Bernadette’s outburst of random words that gives the play its name (‘Octopus! Shanghai! Aliens! Terrorism! Lemons, lemons, lemons, lemons, lemons!’).

A dynamic pairing

In other ways the script falls a little short – I understand the focus being on the couple rather than the political background of the Hush Law, but at times the concept becomes a little stretched due to the vague, sparse information as to how/why the law developed. A systematic explanation isn’t necessary (it works perfectly well without knowing how the government monitors word use, for instance) but a few more contextual details in the script wouldn’t have gone amiss.

The Fletcher Players’ stage is neatly minimalistic and completely whitewashed, well-suited to an intimate dystopia like Lemons. I found the transitions between scenes somewhat awkward at first, though you get used to it – quick changes between scenes make sense, and Day and Redding are fluid at scene-changes. Videotaped extracts are incorporated smoothly. I think it would be better if the lights more conclusively flicked on and off between scenes, but that might just be a limit of Corpus’ lighting rig.

An intimate dystopia

Overall, a smart and intensely compelling play, carried off with style and warmth: a must-see if you have any interest in linguistics, want a new spin on dystopia, or just can’t resist a well-told love story.