In January of 2020, Sam Steiner’s You Stupid Darkness opened at Southwark Playhouse, a play that saw four call handlers, locked inside an office, reassuring people everything was going to be ok, despite the outside world being in chaos. Two months later and… well you know what happened next. Now it’s the turn of Steiner’s debut play, Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, written four years before You Stupid Darkness, to make its West End premiere at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre.
Lemons has been produced before, most notably enjoying a hugely successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but this production has some serious weight behind it, with Josie Rourke directing and a star cast comprising Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner.
Perhaps influenced by Twitter’s original policy of only allowing 140 characters per tweet, Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons presents a world where, by law, each person is only permitted to speak 140 words each day. The concept forces us to think carefully about how we might ration language and the impact it would have in our relationships. Does ‘love you’ mean the same when it’s said in a different way?
In the two-hander, Oliver and Bernadette meet mourning a dead cat in a pet cemetery, before falling in love and moving in together. None of this happens in sequence, the play jumping around to various points in the relationship. Oliver is a musician, and is constantly reminded that as a lawyer, Bernadette is the bread-winner. Bernadette also has issues to confront, including Oliver’s former, but unseen, lover.
The introduction of a hush law leaves a sour taste in Oliver’s mouth; an activist and protester he fights against the draconian law, while Bernadette doesn’t seem to realise the consequences. Wisely, Lemons does not attempt to explain the practicalities behind the ‘quietude’, leaving the audience to ponder how it’s enforced or why it’s even been introduced in the first place. This allows it to play as metaphor, you might think of it as Brexit, or the recent Coronavirus restrictions, but whatever you perceive it as, Steiner’s script cleverly demonstrates how debate is stifled when words are taken away.
Robert Jones’ beautifully designed set packages up the couple’s entire belongings into stacked columns. LED lights and a fluttering soundscape differentiate between scenes, as well as measuring word counts. It’s a tricky script, but Rourke’s snappy direction keeps the audience on track.
Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner work wonderfully well together, bouncing off each other, both in moments of levity and solemnity. As we move between pre and post quietude there is a marked difference in terms of the dialogue, one is fast paced, free and verbose, the other more tightly controlled and measured. Coleman and Turner’s ability to flick between the two is impressive and peels away the layers of a troubled relationship in fascinating fashion.
Just as You Stupid Darkness transpired to be less far-fetched than we might have imagined, Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, touching on themes of inequality, the rise of fascism, and the ‘one rule for them’ mentality, may just have been even more prescient at the time of writing. This is a play to make you think, but with enough lighter moments to be entertained, it’s also some genius writing from Sam Steiner.