Richard Bean’s new play originally ran downstairs at Hampstead Theatre at the end of last year, and has now transferred to Trafalgar Studios 2 for a limited run. It’s a two-hander that goes by in a flash at around 75 minutes, delving into themes of love, loss, war and life.
It’s 1929. The First World War has taken a huge proportion of the youthful generation’s men, leaving many women widowed or still single, and unable to fulfil many of their life goals. Yes, they have more opportunities in the work arena, and the idea of equality is starting to grow, but that’s not going to help some get what they really want: a baby. Stephanie is longing to fill this gap in her life and is willing to go to drastic measures to make it happen. To this end, she arranges to meet Dennis through a programme run by Dr Trollop – it is a high-risk strategy, with the chance she may lose her lodgings and reputation even without her intended outcome. And will emotions complicate matters further?
It seems quite appropriate for a play that shows women almost powerless to control the course of their own lives to be running in spitting distance of Downing Street, where a female Prime Minister currently resides (well, at time of writing) and who is prepared to hold onto her tenuous grasp of power by considering a deal with people who don’t believe women should have control over their bodies, and therefore their lives… That aspect is purely an interesting coincidence, but it’s always relevant to keep considering women’s rights, as well as the consequences of war and changing social attitudes. Or, if none of that particularly appeals to you, Kiss Me also happens to be a sweet and funny love story, with a few twists and turns along the way.
Studio 2 returns to its usual thrust configuration following its last production being set up end-on for the first time, a small bedroom at the centre. Georgia Lowe’s design makes the setting highly intimate, although the mirrored background does occasionally spoil the effect as audience members are visible in the panels. The entire design is recognisably of the time, from the set to the costumes – and there’s a cute little nod to the silent film age with short solo scenes where Stephanie prepares the room (and herself) to animated piano music in between the main action.
Claire Lams and Ben Lloyd-Hughes reprise their roles for this run. The pair have a great chemistry, bouncing off each other as Stephanie and Dennis joke around, and believably intense as things start to get more serious and real for them. What the play does really well is leap between comedy and drama, heightening the effect of each – at one point going from Stephanie nervously offering custard creams to Dennis talking passionately about his wartime regrets.
Lloyd-Hughes plays Dennis in quite a businessman-like fashion (his stats show he’s highly efficient in his role), though seeming to soften as they inadvertently get to know each other, and showing him to be plagued by guilt at not ‘doing his bit’ in the war. Lams is incredibly bright and vibrant as Stephanie, her comic timing bringing a light touch to the actually quite dark subject matter. She’s also very moving, especially as Stephanie’s priorities begin to change; you really feel for her in her confusion over what she truly wants.
My verdict? A play full of light and shade, unafraid to mention the unmentionable – the performances are outstanding.
Kiss Me runs at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 8 July 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.