Arriving at the theatre to collect my ticket, I was handed a copy of the play in book form and a hard copy of a spreadsheet listing the 58 scenes along with the actors appearing in each of them. Yes, you got that first time – 58 scenes, split into 7 sections with well over 100 different characters – well, that is an approximation as I haven't the time to count them all. That, in a nutshell, is the basic structure of this new play by Caryl Churchill.
In fact, 'play' may well not be the most apt description for this production. It depends just what you mean by the term 'play'. The format of 'Love and Information' is more akin to a revue than a traditional kind of play with a handful of characters and maybe a dozen or so scenes. I love the revue format because it allows great ideas to be given an airing without forcing on the writer or production team the necessity to make a meal out of them. Here, the scenes all have titles – though you can only find out what they are from the book. 'Wedding video', 'Sleep', 'Rash', 'Grief' and 'Secret' are just a few. They range over all kinds of settings and situations. There is no obvious theme linking the scenes and no continuous plot woven into the framework. However, 'Depression' makes an appearance in every section.
With so many scenes to get through, designer Miriam Buether has wisely adopted a very simple, box-like set which looks almost like a big, white-tiled shower cubicle without the taps. It seems like the 'cubicle' has sides that can be raised quickly to let the actors on and off the set. But, even so, there's an inevitable delay between scenes. I timed a few of them and most fell within about 10 to 14 seconds, though a few are a little longer. That is pretty snappy in my book, and in fact the whole production really is timed to perfection. The transitions are covered with brilliantly-devised sound effects which must have taken eons to select and edit so they match with each scene. And lighting is also an extremely important element here. As the scenes end, there is a sudden black-out almost as if the shutter of a camera has suddenly snapped shut. In fact, the whole production has a strong and ingenious photographic quality about it.
Some of the scenes are very short, so short that if you blinked you might easily miss them. Most are two-handers, but there are a few with a whole bunch of characters and the settings range from noisy nightclub to the intimacy of a doctor's consulting room. One ingenious scene has two people in bed, but the bed stands upright so it seems like you are peering down on the bed and the characters from above.
Reading some of the scenes in the book, a few things immediately spring to mind. On paper, the comedy is not always immediately apparent. And sometimes, the lack of punctuation makes it difficult to work out how a line should be delivered, or even when different characters should speak. But Ms Churchill obviously understands actors, because when they get to deliver them, the lines really do work a treat. But it's not just the way the lines are written which makes the scenes work so successfully. I suspect the actors love this format too – the performances are universally excellent and, like the sound and scene changes, immaculately timed.
One of the difficulties about this production and the format it employs – at least for me – is that, though many of the scenes are very funny and give a strong, immediate impression, it's hard to retain them in memory for very long. By the time I was gathering my things to leave, I was already struggling to remember what I had seen at the beginning – perhaps a case of information overload, or maybe just the end of a long week. Now that might just be me, but I suspect I will not be on my own in this regard. Evidence is beginning to emerge that our memories are adapting to the immediate availability of information, eg on the internet. Why should our brains bother storing information, when we can get it in the blink of an eye?
So, what is 'Love and Information' about? Well, obviously it is about the way information is affecting our lives and, in particular, our emotions. But I am still undecided, and a little confused about the larger messages it contains. If we have instant information, for example, do we expect instant emotional gratification as well – emotions, if you like, on demand like watching videos on YouTube. And this production really is YouTube for the stage – and I do not mean that in a negative way. The scenes we witness – like the videos on YouTube and similar websites – are short bursts of information and ideas, which bombard us every day, almost on a second-by-second basis. I don't think Ms Churchill is necessarily saying that information is a bad thing, but musing about what it means for us as individuals and our emotions. Even if you struggle to find a bigger meaning to the play, it is nonetheless great fun and brilliantly staged.
"One of the many points made by this exhilarating theatrical kaleidoscope is that we live in a world where information bombardment is in danger of leading to atrophy of memory, erosion of privacy and decay of feeling."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"A dazzlingly slick and sharp production."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"For all its ingenuity and the crispness of Macdonald’s interpretation, it doesn’t afford any great revelations, and the vividness it creates is ephemeral."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"a swift-footed, witty, sometimes haunting, show that is itself a calculated and droll example of information-overload."
Paul Taylor for The Independent