It takes a very clever play about censoring and silencing to get everyone talking at The Fringe. And Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons is just that.
The concept is pleasingly grim. A law is being passed that will censor our speech. We’ll be allowed to talk – but only a measly 140 words per day. The Hush Law: it’s a terrifying idea of a brutal, draconian measure being passed in a world that seems in every other way to be our own. The narrative in which this idea is explored revolves around the relationship between Oliver and Bernadette. They’re a couple who, like any couple, have their ups and downs. They don’t always understand one another. They aren’t always honest. They don’t always try hard enough.
They aren’t particularly likeable either as characters. This makes it tricky to form an emotional bond. Both Beth Holmes and Euan Kitson do a fantastic job, in their very gentle, subtle power-play – particularly at the most pivotal moments, when things seem bleakest.
But a lot of the other stuff – the smirking, giggling and apparently very charming side of their relationship – often feels a little vacuous. It’s that kind of whimsical cuteness that looks like it was lifted straight from a kooky Zooey Deschanel film that we’re all supposed to fawn at, and it feels, at times, glaringly false. Things like the two of them meeting at a funeral held for a cat. It’s sweet, yes – but it doesn’t quite ring true.
There are also certain things we’re told about the two that aren’t completely apparent in either the performance or the text, certain facts about their lives and personalities that spring up suddenly – like Oliver being a politically charged activist. Even Bernadette’s profession seems dubious; she supposed to be a lawyer, but again, this just doesn’t quite seem right when we’re only really signalled by the throwaway lines she gives about ‘The Johnson case’, or whatever it might be.
This is Sam Steiner’s debut play, and it’s clever and impressive, but there are still some tweaks that could be made. A lot of the ambiguity surrounding the Hush Law is brilliantly done; we clearly don’t need to know the intricacies of how it all works. There is an unsettling element in not completely understanding. We still get a sense that it is very real, and we do understand its implications, and what’s at stake. When it comes to the jobs, interests and lives of Oliver and Bernadette, though, these ambiguities feel more like chasms. Do we really need to know what they do for a living? It doesn’t necessarily drive the plot forward, or even add much to their relationship.
The beauty of the play is in its sparseness: it economises one enormous dystopian idea into the fragile relationship between two barefooted performers in an empty space. This gives a real emphasis to the crucial language of the play. The movement between them is also beautiful, but again here there needs to be more attention to the detail, where certain moments might get lost. Director Ed Franklin never has them touching throughout the show. It’s an alien and unsettling thing to watch, and adds power to their words. But their movements are often too predictable (the closer they are in the space, for example, the more connected they are). It’s fine, but it all seems a little easy, and the choreography could be pushed much further to subvert, extenuate and emote in certain scenes.
Despite this, Lemons remains an intriguing and involving play – and one that suggests an exciting future for this company.