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Brighton Year-Round 2023

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons

Wessex Grove, Gavin Kalin Productions, Francesca Moody Productions, Kater Gordon, Patrick Gracey Productions and Rupert Gavin and Mallory Factor Partnership

Genre: Comedic, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal Brighton


Low Down

Think Nick Payne’s Constellations meets Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs. If you love new theatre, queue for returns.

Directed by Josie Rourke, Set Designer, Costume Designer. Robert Jones, Lighting Designer Aideen Malone, Associate Costume Designer Kinnetia Isidore, Movement Director Annie-Lunette Deakin-Foster. Composer Michael Bruce

Casting Director Jim Carnahan CSA & Alexandre Bleau CSA, Associate Director Sean Linnen, Associate Costume Designer Kinnetia Isidore, Associate Sound Designer Sam Clarkson for Sound Quiet Time, Props supervisor Lisa Buckley, Voice Coach Nick Trumble, Assistant Director Caroline Yu, Assistant Lighting Designer Jessica Brigham, Production Manager Sacha Milroy, General Manager Wessex Grove, Marketing Sales Advertising AKA, PR About Grace PR

Understudies Katie Buchholz, David Buttle

Till April 1st


So you might speak about 123,205,750 words in a lifetime but what happened if a new law rationed you? Like 140 characters in a tweet, you literally aren’t allowed to utter another word, even making love.

Sam Steiner’s debut play Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons arrives at Theatre Royal Brighton from its revival at the Harold Pinter Theatre, directed by Josie Rourke, fresh from her As You Like It with Rose Ayling-Ellis and Leah Harvey.

You meet at a dead cat cemetery, fall in love, then later have to get ingenious. Which it just what the characters played by Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner do, in 85 minutes. Can we get eloquent silence back?

Lemons has pedigree, one of the flash-forward plays of the early 2010s. Think Nick Payne’s Constellations (2012) meets Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living (like the Steiner, from 2015) or Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs from 2011. All but Lungs have visited Brighton. Steiner though adds flashback.

Josie Rourke directs a headlong version, a study in virtuosity both exhilarating and occasionally frustrating, quite unlike another version I’ve seen. Coleman in particular finds a truth and watchfulness, a gestural brilliance as well as verbal precision that Turner, a fine presence, can’t quite match at this speed. His words are occasionally mumbled. He’s meant to be a touch less articulate, not less heard – which is crucial.

Robert Jones’ set (and costumes) reference the uncluttered fringe origins of Lemons but magnified to a panorama of household objects gridded out like a giant chocolate-box curved with Aideen Malone’s lighting, shooting strips and lattices across; sudden dark gulphs where images were. Glorious, it occasionally upstages the acting. Below, a bare white oval stage at least grounds them. Movement director Annie-Lunette Deakin-Foster crafts a flash-dance in miniature as the couple shuttlecock through time. Overlapping dialogue, fights, silences and sudden affection are there, though I’ve seen more physical comedy in another production.

Steiner’s taken the short-scenes-punctuated-with-dark method to heart; and here rendered a non-linear dance where a couple’s first moments are only portrayed over half-way through.  So it’s not say Constellations’ unfolding fan of possibilities chronologically straight, or Lungs leaping decades in a few words; more an artful holding back of moments counterpointing revelations out of sequence. For instance we first meet the couple reciting the number of words they have left, or used up; a too-frequent ritual. Then that cat cemetery.

We meet reflective, apolitical if verbally confident Bernadette; a working-class pupil family lawyer. She’s visiting Dennis. Dennis is a cat. Dennis is dead. Such expansive phrases soon might not be allowed. Publicly extroverted, privately unsure, Oliver, a privileged musician composing jingles and dedicated protester, had tried to save the cat being crushed by police. He’s protesting the Hush Laws. The government rations your use of words and somehow they’ll know. Punishment isn’t specified but clearly it’s not good.

Steiner’s appealing, normative characters negotiate an arc of attraction but because of the structure we only see it obliquely, in counterpoint. There’s flash-points. Oliver earning less (which Bernadette politely tries to factor in, making things worse) is the virtue-signaller, appealing to Bernadette’s class interest. She though refuses to be patronised. Offstage Julie, Oliver’s old flame on these marches, adds a much-needed dimension: why did they break up? There’s aftershocks.

What we don’t get is any exploration of the couple’s attraction, or much individuality: it’s a given, a premise to hook the drama. Coleman though makes you want more.

The way we communicate with silence, the way every word counts but meanings might get squeezed out, are highlighted. Tellingly, Bernadette can’t relate a funny incident at the supermarket: humour, humanity in little things will be erased. Resorting to morse code might help, is infinite. There’s a touching sense when this happens. Will it be enough?

Steiner though probes something else. How we behave and turn complicit with government directives, how we adapt to even absurd laws, having protested against them. Own behaviour, especially vital communication, you own the world. It impacts on how we relate at all. We’re already learning to use 140 characters. Abiding by rules set by technological limits set by capital imperatives. Steiner’s trope is dazzlingly true.

Added to which parliament, police stations and the law courts (where Bernadette flourishes) are exempt. ‘One rule for them’ here becomes totalitarian. To explore the consequences, you have to swallow the (wild) improbability. Steiner is winking, there’s absurdism beneath the light dusting of realism.

And coping with dystopia, rather than ending mere automatons, is now more plausible than a totalising extreme like Winston Smith’s. You can make eye contact. You can rebel and use up all that verbal capital: “Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons!”

Lemons with its few redundant repeats might be pruned, or more tellingly, have a few scenes rewritten to let in a touch more humanity.

Steiner’s first play in fact prophesied the way he’d develop, as in You Stupid Darkness! (2019) memorably staged by Paines Plough at Southwark shortly before lockdown. There a vestigial Samaritans-type phone centre is being swamped literally by catastrophic global warming and flooding. And Steiner has a way with not quite knowing where he ends – though in Lemons it’s all so dazzling the question-mark’s muted.

Coleman can be mute with a flicker of desolate tenderness I’ve not seen before, and is quite special. Turner’s excellent at body-shifting awkwardness that telegraphs Oliver’s being. Both give exhilarating performances. You believe them though Steiner’s juiced more lemons in at least one previous production. That’s a minor caveat though. If you love new theatre, queue for returns.