Before Mike Bartlett’s success in writing his own Shakespearean tragedy King Charles III in 2014 and his later Chekhov-inspired Albion three years later, he penned a much more conventional middle-class family drama. But its conventionality doesn’t make Love, Love, Love any less finely crafted. It presents its domesticity against the backdrop of three time periods: from the second-wave feminist, freedom-questing 1960s, to the final year of Thatcher’s government in 1990, before moving into the end of the noughties. Apparently, our parents had it easier than us a few decades ago: all alcohol, cigarettes and comfy sofas. It was an easier time to change the world, perhaps. Certainly to get on the property ladder.
Beginning in the 60s, 19-year-old Kenneth (Nicholas Burns) is visiting his brother Henry (Patrick Knowles) who is keen to make a good impression for an evening date with Oxford undergrad Sandra (Rachel Stirling). Old sticky plates find themselves stacked up beneath the furniture. Cigarette smoke clings to the green and brown walls. The evening doesn’t go to plan as Sandra takes a quick interest in Kenneth, their shared love of pop culture and political in-jokes excluding Henry to the single armchair. He sits with a stern gaze, peeved that his younger brother has ruined his evening. He’s the sort of man who has always been old, but Sandra wants young and fresh; she wants a revolution.
Joanna Scotcher’s set design creates three totally different living rooms each with their own design to suit the period. Each one feels richer, more lavish than the last, as Sandra and Kenneth get together, their careers kick off, they have kids, and their household income increases by the decade. As is the convention for the middle-class domestic drama, the action of each scene revolves around sofas. The first sofa is a warm fuzzy sort of orangey-brown, the sort of coloured texture that might help to disguise some stains and spillages.
Two decades after the initial meeting and we’re in Sandra and Kenneth’s family home. The sofa is a hideous floral thing. Father and son bond, as Burns smokes a cigarette whilst fourteen-year-old Jamie (Mike Noble) drinks from a glass of white wine. Sandra makes an eccentric entrance. Her legs are jittery, she can’t keep still. In the first act, Stirling’s voice is deep, husky. She settles into it now, and her words pound and cut with quips and patronising affection, sharp as the knife which soon cuts excessively, humorously large chunks of birthday cake.
By the time Sandra reaches the end of the noughties, now in her early fifties, its quality makes sense: a voice textured with decades of decadence, of excess in cigarettes and alcohol on sofas just like this one. The daughter in the family, Rose (Isabella Laughland) begins to imitate her mother’s tone, elongating the stresses of particular words, an attempt to exert power. Yet it doesn’t have the same ring to it when it comes from Rose. Even her costume attempts to mirror her mother’s, but Rose’s plain black dress fails to leave the impression of Sandra’s fitted dress and blazer, her sophisticated earrings and heels. She wants to get away from her parents, but she can’t have the same luxury as the baby boomers of the 60s, she can’t afford it.
The third act sofa is an elegant off-grey upon a zig-zag greyscale wooden floor in Kenneth’s exquisite apartment, the sort of place where the lights don’t need to be turned on until late because the sunlight beams disperse through the gauze curtains that hang down from tall windows. The scene is like plasma, metallic. Rose asks her parents to gather on it for an announcement. Despite the divorce, they sit closely to each other, a bringing together that soon leads to a dance; that vulnerable nakedness of being held by another human being, all the while disregarding Rose’s plea for financial support or Jamie’s need for affection and kindness, following a suggested battle with alcoholism. Music that was once an artform of liberation, revolution, in the second and third acts becomes a violent medium used to mask a younger generation’s anxieties.
Under the Love, Love, Love of the play’s title is something monstrous, the baby boomer privilege that sees a fruit bowl being used as an ash tray, carelessly. Rose is right: her parents didn’t change the world like they planned, they merely bought it. Bartlett weaves this underlying build-up of tension through the storytelling with humour and touching moments of human connection. These moments jar against Kenneth and Sandra’s flippancy, their sudden overnight divorce as speedy and sudden as their initial get-together.
The play was written a decade ago; the wealth disparity between the two generations feels like more of an accepted criticism now. I’d like to think that parents and grandparents are more aware of inflation being disproportionate to the increase in work wages, of the property crisis that young people face. In her programme note, director Rachel O’Riordan talks about thinking of the audience as the play’s fourth act. I didn’t see it the first time to make a comparison, but perhaps Rose and Jamie’s situations elicit more sympathy in post-show conversations now than they did back then. Rising inequality makes the refusal of Rose’s appeal for help particularly cruel and, actually, quite heart-breaking. She takes her brother’s hand with a sense of care and duty, because her parents set her up to fail and then abandoned her.
As Sandra, Stirling transitions through the ages, never leaving one personality behind in exchange for the next, but rather affirming the key traits in the opening act and maturing these as the years move on. It’s a vivid display of the tensions in the middle-class generation gap, as we spend our whole childhoods encouraged to listen to advice from our elders, so by the time we realise our mistakes in doing so it’s too late… we can’t afford a nice sofa, and the freedom Sandra and Kenneth fought for in the 60s is now well out of anyone’s budget.
Love, Love, Love is on at Lyric Hammersmith until 4th April. More info and tickets here.