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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Nick Curtis

Lemons... at the Harold Pinter Theatre review: Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman make this a bittersweet pleasure

Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman

(Picture: Johan Persson)

Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner add glamour and heft to Sam Steiner’s cultish 2015 fringe hit about language, that’s now vaulted into the West End. They play divorce lawyer Bernadette and musician Oliver, newly cohabiting when the government decides – for unexplained but presumably repressive reasons – to limit its citizens to 140 words of speech a day.

This slight, absurd concept, inspired by Twitter’s character-count and clearly unworkable in any practical sense, proves a surprisingly flexible metaphor for the restriction of liberty. It also enables Steiner to explore how people spar, hedge and evade in everyday conversation.

The play flits back and forth across the span of the couple’s relationship in over 100 scenes and just 85 minutes in Josie Rourke’s light-footed production. As well as a stimulating thought-experiment, it’s also a romantic comedy that the easy-on-the-eye stars of Doctor Who and Poldark sell extremely well.

They circle each other, shoeless, in front of a curved wall artfully littered by designer Robert Jones with the paraphernalia of a life, from car parts to bedside lamps. Changes in lighting indicate changes of scene. When they meet, at a funeral for a friend’s cat – bit of a twee touch, that - Oliver is laddish and charming, Bernadette reserved but witty.

(Johan Persson)

As both their enthusiastic courtship and their frustrated later life under the “hush law” unfold, his bullying edge and her sensitivity come out. He is privileged and angry. She is chippy about her working-class roots and complacent about the new law. The changes in the dynamic between them come out in the roll of Turner’s shoulders and the quizzical tilt of Coleman’s jaw. These are detailed physical performances in a play about words.

The script is expertly crafted and sometimes incisive. Steiner doesn’t beat any particular drum, but the central concept strikes chords in contemporary politics, both in recent attempts to limit the right to protest or to strike here, and in more authoritarian regimes overseas.

Mostly, he’s acutely conscious of language, and makes you hyper-aware of it too. The couple’s 11th hour outpouring of feeling before the law comes in is full of superfluous “y’knows”, “greats” and “okays”. After the first time Oliver says “I love you” we see how they fling the phrase about, sometimes heartfelt, sometimes offhand, sometimes terse, in a myriad later exchanges. Later they use the word limit to avoid talk of marriage and children. The writing gets glib when they converse without conjunctions, or invent contractions to cheat the system, like “Lovou” for “Love you”.

But if you’re prepared to swallow this along with the improbable premise, Lemons is a bittersweet pleasure: a play that asks wide-ranging questions about communication and control, and a sad love story subtly enacted by two luminous screen stars. Plus, you get out in time for a late supper. As the characters might say, when they run short on their word quota: what not like?

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