There’s something uniquely uncomfortable about not liking something for which you are the precise target audience (queer, female, late twenties, living in South London). It feels perverse or churlish or just weirdly personal. And I think that’s why I’ve taken so long to write this review – and why I hate writing negative reviews of small, heart-in-the-right-place shows full stop. But I’m here now and ready to dredge through the discomfort – like a fisherman trawling for lobsters, if I had the same penchant for awkward similes as one of this show’s protagonists (okay, I kind of do).
This Lobster is a romcom about two women who are pushing 30, one gawky and desperate for love and kids, the other bitter and scared of commitment. They talk to each other, hunting desperately for some common ground as they navigate the rituals of 21st century dating. Mostly, they talk about themselves: these two characters tell us who they are and what means stuff to them, rather than letting the audience tease it out, rather than leaving a sense of the ambiguity and shiftingness and ultimate, terrifying unknowability of another human.
As they build an internet date into a full-blown relationship, they fill their conversation with hyper-specific ‘relatable’ millennial, South London, middle class detail too: they really like the V&A cafe and going to Clapham Common. They even build blanket forts. We’ve all built blanket forts. Lucy Foster’s play constantly appeals to you, puppyishly, saying “these people are real”, but to me, they don’t ring true.
Part of this implausibility is the lack of even a little of the ‘relatable’ stuff that many lesbian, bisexual and/or queer women actually use as shorthand on dates – even an apolitical, thoroughly normcore couple like this. We have our own cliches: that we talk about our exes way too much, that we fixate on new Ghostbusters/Tilda Swinton (actual sexuality irrelevant), that we are into roller derby or Hampstead Ladies Pond or carpentry or PhD level recycling, that we do each others’ undercuts, that we’re vegetarian or feel the need to excessively justify why we’re not.
Sometimes people airily wave their hands and say ‘Oh, everyone’s bi really’ or ‘Love is love’ or ‘gender’s an illusion’ and maybe in a muslin-draped warehouse somewhere in Manor House that’s true (but I bet the woman and non-binary people still do all the washing up). But in Clapham, conformist Clapham, it still feels weird that J and K never mention their sexuality and its impact on their lives, beyond one lone reference to gay marriage. Ever tried going on a femme-femme date to the kind of pub you get in Clapham? After 10pm, typical responses include slack-jawed, unapologetic stares from men at neighbouring tables, being co-opted into a double date with two red-faced guys in pink shirts you badly don’t want to know, or being asked if you’re ‘sisters’ by someone whose beer goggles aren’t subtle enough to see beyond ‘woman, squared’. If you’d prefer to be left in peace, you could try your best to get served at the Two Brewers, a gay pub that’s rammed with a crowd of mostly guys, having a lovely time to a 90s Heat radio-type soundtrack. Yes, you could conduct a love affair entirely within the safe womb of your flat, the Common, and the V&A cafe. But normally, these things would flavour a relationship, a little.
I’m not directing these thoughts specifically at Lobster (which deserves some credit for avoiding the two archetypal lesbian storylines of ‘coming out’ or ‘making babies’) – just pointing to all the colour and context and politics we lose when writers tell stories that pretend we live in a world where our gender and sexuality don’t matter, and don’t shape our identity and relationship at least to some extent. Depicting a same-sex relationship isn’t a virtue in and of itself, and although there are universal things about love, the specific, underdiscussed, awkward bits are often more interesting.
There are other joys to Foster’s script. It feels unfinished, unstructured, but it’s full of energetic wordplay and daffy humour. Actors Louise Beresford and Alexandra Reynolds throw themselves into it with endearing vigour. But it lands somewhere strangely bland: it’s not really ‘about’ much, apart from the slow process of drifting apart, under the pressures of a society that still idealises settling down and having kids.
Queer culture has the power to challenge established ideas of monogamy, reconfigure ideas of what being an adult is, untangle gendered power structures, to refigure how we move through a city, and how we create communities – but the richness of these ideas is generally only explored on stage by live artists like Rosana Cade or Nando Messias. I wonder if they’ll ever seep into ‘straight’ theatre, and hope they will: because acceptance doesn’t mean creating frictionless worlds where the same, old, familiar problems can unfold.
Lobster is on at Theatre503 until January 20th. Book tickets here.