You know the one about boy meets girl, right? A drunken romantic encounter, ensuing awkwardness, years of near misses and friendship and dancing obliviously around one another. Dirty Great Love Story, the sharp new two-hander from writing and performing duo Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna, ticks all of these boxes, but with enough charm, wit and everyday poetry to transcend its predictable romcom trappings.
As the pixellated heart emblazoned on a banner at the back of the stage suggests, this is a distinctly modern vision of love. If it was a Facebook relationship status it would read “it’s complicated”. Richard is short-sighted, socially inept and afflicted with a clumsy sense of humour; Katie is just out of a messy break-up, with a “stabbed up heart” and a short dress. Their pairing on a boozy night out, shoved together by their tipsily crowing mates, is as inevitable as it is cringe-inducing.
The comedy that this seemingly clichéd set-up generates, however, has the intelligence to surprise and delight. Cruder than your average Richard Curtis film, Marsh and Bonna incorporate all the groaningly familiar embarrassments of contemporary single life, from cloakroom fumbles to untimely vomiting, all related through unlikely poetry. A sparkling fusion of drama and spoken word, the pair’s ingenious rhymes – owls and bowels, anyone? – span the ridiculous and the romantic, remaining deliciously sweet while refusing to sugar-coat the often bewildering, humiliation-ridden world of 21st-century dating.
For all that it resembles the much maligned romcom, Marsh and Bonna’s show also unveils the many lies implicit in the genre that it owes its creation to. Romance is skewered by realism; as Richard eventually tells Katie, “I love you realistically – I wouldn’t die for you”. There is a playful, teasing commentary on the familiar story arc, with one periphery character knowingly remarking that the turn of events is “just like a movie”. Wisely, Marsh and Bonna never taken themselves or the show they have created too seriously.
But the piece’s greatest charm lies in its unfashionable note of hope. Despite all the binge-drinking, apathy and casual sex that are usually held up as indictments of modern twenty- and thirty-something life, Marsh and Bonna find optimism rather than gloomy inevitability in the position of their generation. As they put it, “fucked up is just fine” and slightly ugly romance can be every bit as intoxicating as the airbrushed kind. Just as poetry can sometimes be clumsy, unconventional and a little bit dirty, so can love.