No, despite its title, Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is not some kind of stage adaptation of that Ewan McGregor-narrated Expedia ad. It is, in fact, the story of a relationship through the lens of language – with a dash of social commentary on the side. Sam Steiner’s two-hander premièred in 2015 at Warwick Arts Centre, and is now making its West End debut under the direction of Josie Rourke; Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman star as Oliver and Bernadette, and will take the production to Opera House Manchester and Theatre Royal Brighton following its engagement at the Harold Pinter Theatre.
After meeting at a pet cemetery (on several occasions), trainee lawyer Bernadette and wannabe rockstar Oliver enter into a relationship. It has its ups & downs, and they have regular arguments, but the pair see this as a point of strength – they may not always agree, but they do always manage to talk things through and work things out. Their communication skills look set to be tested, however, when a bill is proposed to limit everyone in the country to 140 words per day; Bernadette is sure it won’t get voted through, so remains passive, whereas the more worried Oliver busies himself with action groups and protest marches – the couple are united in a state of shock when it hurriedly becomes the law, and they only have four days to prepare for an entirely new way of life. Their initial confidence quickly wanes, as reality intrudes on their system and threatens to tear them apart.
Except it doesn’t present exactly like this. Taking its cue from works like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Nick Payne’s Constellations, the narrative of Lemons… comes in non-chronological order; the end bleeds into the beginning, moments at one period in Oliver and Bernadette’s relationship fracture off into other, similar, points in time – and somehow it all manages to make sense. The sensation immediately reminded me of reading A Clockwork Orange for the first time (this isn’t part of a wider citrus theme, I promise), which is partially written in the invented pseudo-language of Nadsat; it looks like absolute gobbledegook when you look at the page, but as soon as you start to read through it, the meaning of the words become clear. It takes a while, but as the play wears on you pick up clues from certain scenes, and start to piece together what’s going on in the initially quite cryptic scenes from later in the story. So you do have to pay attention, but it isn’t too hard to work out once there’s a trail of breadcrumbs.
The old adage, ‘be careful what you wish for’, plays out in a subtle way for both parties; Bernadette remarks early on that she wants a completely new shared language between them as a couple, rather than just recycling habits from previous relationships – and Oliver’s distaste for qualifiers (such as ‘really’) is tested when they no longer have the spare word capacity in which to use them. Despite what Bernadette says, the law is clearly fascistic and could well see the devolution of man – but on the other hand, it will force creativity & ingenuity (in word choice as well as getting around the limit), and has the potential to strengthen connections in relationships. It’s interesting to see this extreme scenario play out, weighing up the pros & cons as it goes along. And that’s the power of art.
The 140-word limit will, for a certain cross-section of the audience, instantly bring to mind the old 140-character limit on Twitter (which doubled in 2017), though the whole process of the “Hush Law” coming into being will inevitably make you think about Brexit – and probably several other calamitous decisions from the incumbent Tory government. But the classic hallmarks of a law being rushed through with inadequate preparation and no thought for the ramifications of such a massive decision is Pure Brexit™. Rather than pushing straight for a repeal, a campaign begins to allow exceptions to the daily limit in certain situations; the campaigners are thinking more along the lines of official protests, but who ends up benefiting the most from the eventual amendments? You guessed it: the wealthy & powerful.
Aidan Turner’s comic chops were previously well tested in his most recent theatrical outing, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, as well as TV projects Being Human and Desperate Romantics, and this experience serves him well here; his comic timing is exceptional, and he also displays great physicality. There is great chemistry between Turner and Jenna Coleman – the back & forths between the pair flow naturally, and together they make more of Oliver and Bernadette than is there on the page. Coleman is also brilliant in the comedy exchanges, but it is in rare moments of poignancy where she really shines, letting us glimpse past Bernadette’s toughened exterior.
My verdict? The language of love and the love of language play off against one another in this time-hopping two-hander – Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman are a terrific pairing.
Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 March 2023. Tickets are available online or from the box office. Full details of the tour can be found on the official website.