Review by Daz Gale
What would you do if you were limited to speaking just 140 words a day? That’s the intriguing premise behind the unusually titled Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons. With two big names starring in it, there has been a lot of excitement over this play, but would it leave me feeling sour? And don’t worry – this review won’t be limited to 140 words.
Sam Steiner’s Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons charts the relationship between Bernadette (Jenna Coleman) and Oliver (Aidan Turner) from their first meeting to the beginning of the end as they deal with the new law that limits the number of words they are allowed to speak each day. Throughout the play, in a non-linear order, we see meetings between them both before and after the law comes into effect, allowing for two very different narratives – one full of flowing dialogue while the other is short and abbreviated due to the word limit.
This distinct back-and-forth change in structure can prove jarring at first, especially as the action continually moves around. Eventually you do acclimatise to the timeline but this very much will depend on the person as I distinctly heard a very confused conversation behind me asking exactly when each part of the play took place.
While the concept of Lemons… is exciting in itself, its execution is flawed. Slightly convoluted at times, it struggles to reach the potential it has set itself with such an intriguing premise. Sam Steiner’s writing in itself is enjoyable, and while I understand the choice to portray this story as an intimate two-hander, it felt to me like a bit more world-building wouldn’t go amiss. We are expected to believe this far-fetched concept without understanding anything more about how this happened and, most importantly how it is enforced. It is one thing to suspend your disbelief but when your mind keeps wondering about things that are never explained, it sadly loses the sense of escapism.
More consistent is Josie Rourke’s direction which makes full use of an empty stage juxtaposed with a busy backdrop designed by Robert Jones. The rapid pace as one scene ends and another begins with a split second between each is handled fantastically with its two accomplished performers having plenty of versatility to keep the non stop 90 minutes they are on stage consistently interesting.
Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner have proven themselves as fantastic performers time and time again, both on stage and on screen, with both winning legions of fans in shows including Doctor Who and Poldark respectively. In Lemons… they get ample opportunity to showcase their talents.
Coleman is a joy to watch as the charming Bernadette, delivering a sweet well-rounded and interesting character who can easily get the audience to fall in love with her as her stage partner has. Turner plays a more complicated character which leads to a bigger performance as he reacts to the changing world around him and how it affects his changing relationship with Bernadette.
The chemistry Coleman and Turner have on stage is varied to say the least – at times, they have great believability as a couple, less so at others. Presumably a deliberate choice to represent how fractured their relationship becomes as they lose the art of conversation, there is an evident disconnect between the pair during these moments though moments of warmth do come in. This can create an issue though when the action darts back to happier, more free-flowing conversational times as it becomes harder to change the chemistry that had been the polar opposite moments previously. An unfortunate obstacle with the structure and narrative of this production.
Lemons… has wowed audiences in previous incarnations but something about it seems to have been lost in its West End transfer. For a play about the use of words, it is ironically the words that are the biggest problem here. Never quite connecting with the audience, it at times can feel like something is missing and that they are being spoken at each other rather than to each other. It is quite telling that the most powerful moment in the play is a prolonged silence between the two actors where they really get a chance to test their acting prowess and prove that words are not necessary for effective storytelling. That said, the right words never go amiss.
It is hard to know just how I felt about Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons. While the performances from Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner were fantastic in themselves and the direction was a true strength, it was the writing that let this play down. An interesting premise that was never fully realised. So much was left unsaid, and while that very much may have been the intention, it didn’t come across in the way it was meant. Unfortunately, while there was plenty to appreciate about this show, the whole thing left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.
Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18th March. It then plays Manchester Opera House 21st – 25th March and Theatre Royal Brighton 28th March – 1st April
Photos by Johan Persson