Not to be all ‘I saw the Pistols in ’76’, but I did see Sam Steiner’s debut play ‘Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons’ in its original incarnation as a lo-fi word-of-mouth hit at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
I remember it as a reasonably whimsical affair: political, yes, but at its heart a fizzing, inventive romcom set in a Britain in which language has become strictly limited to 140 words per person, per day. It’s a limit that protagonist couple Oliver and Bernadette adhere to with a deadly seriousness that Steiner smartly refuses to get into: it’s as if physics has been changed by decree.
But Josie Rourke’s surprise West End revival, starring telly faves Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner is a disarmingly bleak affair, or certainly in comparison to eight years ago.
You can probably blame Brexit for some of this. The late Cameron years from which ‘Lemons’ emerged weren’t exactly idyllic, but I don’t think ‘the hush law’ – as staunch opponent of the word limitation act Oliver calls it – felt based on anything specific back in 2015. Now, however, it totally feels like a comment on the loss of freedoms that came with Brexit, not to mention the general rise of global authoritarianism in recent years. The fracture between Oliver’s activism and Bernadette’s apolitical uncertainty feels deeper and more pointed, a parable about creeping fascism.
Which is absolutely reasonable and in many ways shows that the play is ageing well (it’s also been somewhat rewritten by Steiner). But the feeling that the language limit is now a slightly heavy-handed allegory maybe robs ‘Lemons x 5’ of some of its former lightness of touch.
This dourness is underscored by Coleman and Turner’s frosty, unforgiving takes on Bernadette and Oliver.
They have a good meet cute: randomly, at a cat’s funeral. But their relationship rarely feels functional outside these scenes, despite the plot spanning a full seven years.
Coleman is cold and brittle as lawyer Bernadette, who is insecure and irritated that her musician boyfriend takes a dim view of her profession and seeks out the company of his more political friends, including his ex. And Oliver – while admirably socially engaged – is just a bit of a self-absorbed prick. We never really get to enjoy their relationship at any point: it’s always tense. Not that the play is one note, and it’s fascinating how the pair change after the hush law is enforced: before they probably yakked away too much, endlessly dancing around their actual feelings; after they’re stressed and miserable, unhappy with their brutally limited means of expressing themselves.
I’m probably making it sound like a chore, and it’s not. Steiner’s writing is smart and pithy, and Coleman and Turner give very raw, very human performances that feel deeply personal. If they’re miscast in any way it’s that they’re digging a bit too deep for what maybe worked better as a fizzy, cerebral play of ideas in which the actors played second fiddle to the writing.
There’s a lovely set design from Robert Jones, a big wall laden with the ephemera of daily living, junk and clutter that stands in contrast to Bernadette and Oliver’s increasingly pared-down lives. It’s beautifully lit by Aideen Malone, especially the move to washed-out lighting in the post-hush act sections.
‘Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons’ is still good after its richly deserved West End glow-up, it’s just that it’s gone a little sour.