Richard Bean’s Kiss Me has returned to the London stage under the direction of Anna Ledwich. The intimate Trafalgar Studios 2 lends itself to the affectionate comedy drama, but the writing is below par for the celebrated playwright.
The plot explores an intriguing proposition, it’s London 1929 and a war widow in her early thirties is desperate to have a baby. In the tragic aftermath of the war, there are “no men” and of course, being 1929 that’s a big barrier to the only method of conceiving. Stephanie has enlisted the services of a Doctor Trollope, who provides men to women in this position, the transaction has already occurred and we can only assume it was a financial one.
The play opens to an era setting piano piece, as Stephanie nervously tidies her lodgings in preparation for the arrival of her would-be sperm donor. When he does arrive, the parameters of the transaction are clearly described, including the prohibition of kissing. As the two-hander progresses the couple break those rules and fall in love, but a happy ending seems not to be on the cards.
The character of Stephanie is supposed to be a modern woman, she drives a munitions truck and smokes cigarettes, yet she comes across increasingly hypocritical “Sex and rum at eleven in the morning!” she exclaims, seemingly forgetting it was her idea. On top of that the character is written in such a frustrating way, you wish she would just stop talking and interrupting all the time, it looks very much like additional dialogue had to be constantly inserted to justify making it in to a play.
The only saving grace for Stephanie is Claire Lams, who works hard to ensure the character isn’t completely unlikeable, Lams gives a strong performance in every scene and one moment stands out in particular; as she and her companion become intimate for the first time, Lams struggles to breathe and shakes in terror, it’s an irresistibly tender performance.
Ironically, the father of hundreds of children, Dennis (also known as Billy) is the most likeable of the two characters, you almost start to feel sorry for him as Stephanie parades her morals in front of him while simultaneously demanding he impregnate her. Ben Lloyd-Hughes is excellent in the role, he begins in austere, almost robotic, fashion as the character attempts to adhere to the parameters, yet he constantly softens with each passing scene.
Tarnished mirrors help to make the stage feel bigger and also draw the audience in to the action, it’s a very intimate production and the staging helps to make it feel more believable. Kiss Me is an interesting concept with a strong duo in the central roles, but the writing lets it down, the constant back and forth, while occasionally amusing, just feels too contrived.