Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, Harold Pinter Theatre, review: Tantalising despite limitations

Jenna Coleman and Aiden Turner in Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, at the Harold Pinter Theatre - Johan Persson
Jenna Coleman and Aiden Turner in Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, at the Harold Pinter Theatre - Johan Persson

Imagine how many words have been written over the past decade or so about Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner, as darlings of the small-screen and resulting, heart-throbby celebrities. How many column inches were expended on the Irishman's torso alone in the Poldark years? Even his beard was a topic amid coverage of the ITV thriller The Suspect.

After countless ‘hack’ words, how teasingly neat of the two stars to join forces in a zesty play (mouthful of a title) by up-and-comer Sam Steiner that envisages a world in which words get hacked to a minimum. They play a couple – Bernadette and Oliver – who become subject to the rationing of spoken interactions, after a ‘Hush Law’ gets passed by Parliament.

The draconian quota (140 words a day) seems to reflect the fact that Steiner’s play premiered in 2015, at a time when Twitter set its users a 140-character limit. Although that later got raised, it generated a debate about whether social media discourse benefited from constraint. And here Steiner is probing personal and philosophical questions about how we relate to each other through language and whether restricted freedom of speech, crushing as it sounds, might force people to face essentials.

Like Duncan Macmillan’s eco-minded Lungs and Nick Payne’s multiverse-leaping hit Constellations, this compact affair uses the equivalent of jump-cuts to describe the arc of a couple’s relationship, some scenelets lasting moments. The frustration is that it isn’t in the same league as those other works – it’s a tad too sketchy, shrugging aside the logistics, for instance, of how this law could feasibly be implemented.

Yet it’s a testament to the potency of the conceit, and the dynamism and subtle chemistry of Coleman and Turner, their every move, look and switch deftly supervised by director Josie Rourke, that you’re hooked and, even if not fully smitten and persuaded, tantalised and intrigued.

Clad in everyday clothes and pacing in socks – an imposing cabinet of odds and sods curving high around them – the duo let glimpses of clarity emerge from cryptic beginnings. She, a lawyer, and he, a musician, met at the funeral for a friend’s cat and kookily hook up at the pet cemetery.

Abrupt shifts between warm light and something colder and brighter bounce us between the pre-law and post-law age, but questions about what they are ‘really’ saying to each other, particularly about a past relationship in his case, are vexed in either situation.

It’s hard not to think of the privations of lockdown as the pair flirt and become more familiar, the law exposing divergences of attitude. Coleman is captivatingly winsome, bright, brittle at points, her hands on hips, but perhaps lacking a dash of acid, citric or otherwise, when things get more unpleasant. Watching every counted word with her, Turner is gangly, lofty yet likeable, sweetly bashful but also prone to remote stares.

Near the close, he gives us a round of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart. What’s not to like about that? And what’s not to love about those sudden flurries when they indicate feelings through taps on the floor, exaggerated facial expressions and the heart-stopping quietude of a kiss? Plenty for fans to admire, then, but a few syllables short of a humdinger.

Until March 18, then tours. Tickets: lemonstheplay.co.uk