'Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons' review – Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner are a charismatic double act

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

When we talk to one another, what are we really trying to say? The slipperiness and complexity of language gets a rigorous workout in Sam Steiner’s 2015 play Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, an Edinburgh Fringe hit-turned-buzzy new West End production, featuring the starry casting of Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who) and Aidan Turner (Poldark). They play a couple grappling with a dystopian new law, the Quietude Act, which commands that no one speak more than 140 words a day.

That number riffs on Twitter’s original character count, but here such rules travel far beyond social media. There’s no point questioning the viability of such a hush law (how on earth would it be calculated or enforced?); best just to accept it. Steiner is far more interested in the effect it might have on our ability to communicate or to maintain a relationship.

In fact, working-class lawyer Bernadette and privileged musician Oliver have multiple issues bubbling away under the surface already, ranging from her jealousy of his wealthy ex Julie, who he still sees on protest marches, to his sneering about her more corporate job. The new language restriction simply highlights existing fault-lines.

If one of them stores up fewer words to spend on the other in the evening, does that mean they care less? Both constantly push conflicts away with a “Talk about this later”, not just because they’re out of words, but because they don’t want to face their problems. And it makes them, and us, more aware of telling linguistic tropes – like how Bernadette uses “really” as a qualifier when she’s trying too hard, as in “I really love it” when talking about Oliver’s music.

Steiner plays this for comedy, too. When the restrictions first come in, the pair try to get around them by using Morse code and intense eye contact: the former is a non-starter, the latter far too serial killer. Sometimes, life is hard to control – “I spent 40 words ordering a smoothie,” bemoans Bernadette. And blurted-out confessions in their last five minutes of freedom are instantly regretted, such as Bernadette’s choice of word for their sex life: “bored”.

This busy piece has more than 100 scene fragments, jumping back and forth in time from their macabre meet-cute at a cat’s funeral through to the law being enacted and its aftermath. Coleman and Turner brilliantly switch tack at lightning speed, one minute goofily awkward around one another, the next deepening what feels like an authentically lived-in relationship. Bernadette is fixated on creating a new couple language, unburdened by past affairs, to make “I love you” just theirs. It adds a potent personal element to the outlandish premise.

However, Steiner’s play – a two-hander that mixes romcom with a high-concept hypothesis – inevitably invites comparisons with Nick Payne’s recently revived Constellations. Steiner’s doesn’t marry form, concept and characterisation in nearly such a seamless, sophisticated way, nor does it have the same level of pathos or existential exploration. Instead it creaks under the pressure to sustain the drama through the full runtime (around 85 minutes), and feels too slight for this Rolls-Royce West End treatment.

And yet, time has been extremely kind to it in other ways. Recent events make many of its ideas feel not just interesting in the abstract, but alarmingly urgent. The government in the world of the play is intent on silencing protestors and censoring free speech, while making an exception from the hush law for Parliament – one rule for us and one for them.

The strained intimacy of Bernadette and Oliver’s new life recalls all those relationships which were tested by lockdown, and which either grew much stronger or tore apart. And Bernadette’s blasé dismissal of the proposed law, followed by her slow-dawning horror when it’s voted in, put me right back in that nightmarish moment of disbelief when the Brexit Referendum result was announced.

But, whatever you choose to read into it, Lemons only works if you buy the chemistry between its two characters – and Coleman and Turner are a powerfully charismatic double act. Her Bernadette is whip-smart but defensive, using a chipper brightness to mask resentments. Turner creates an effective contrast with his looser, brashly charming but sometimes childish Oliver, who negs her when he’s feeling insecure. Sometimes their jagged pieces fit perfectly together; sometimes they just wound each other.

Director Josie Rourke makes excellent use of different lighting cues (courtesy of Aideen Malone) to help us keep track of the time jumps and to visualise the central idea, with shoots of light of various sizes representing the number of words used. Conversely, Robert Jones’s looming curved backdrop, featuring domestic objects, is oddly literal.

In fact, in this oh-so-talkative play, it’s the physicality which is most striking (superb work from movement director Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster), along with moments when the duo break into song. It’s a compelling argument for art as a means of expression – for when words just aren’t enough.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is at the Harold Pinter Theatre through 18 March. Book Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner in Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons (Photo by Johan Persson)

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