Tobacco Factory Theatres Beyond is taking touring shows to a number of venues across Bristol. Last night it was the Greenbank pub in Easton, a pub I know very, very well having spent several years with it as my local. You were more likely to hear strong Bristol accents in there then, rather than the confident well-spoken voices in the pub area tonight, and there certainly weren’t cases of posh little cakes on the bar in the old days. I remember the excitement one night when a live mouse fell on the bar from above. It was a good pub, and then it was a terrible pub for a while, and now it is a gastropub. It was certainly busy last night, and it very, very much reminded me of the song performed by Jonny and the Baptists on the theme of what makes a pub. More than one type of wine? You can’t take a snack off a naked lady? It’s not a real pub!
But that’s all by the by. The venue is important though, because unfortunately in this case I don’t think it worked well for the show Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons. This is a debut production from a team of young Warwick University graduates, and apparently it has been getting very good reviews from various places.
The venue was a fairly small upstairs room. The performance was done in the round, with the audience seated on all four sides. The floor area for the ‘stage’ was small, and the lighting, which consisted of four spotlights, one at each corner of the stage, shone directly into the audience’s eyes. It was blinding and it made it hard to see the actors’ faces when they were on some parts of the stage. I suspect that it wasn’t an easy venue for the actors and that we didn’t see the performance at its best. I never quite made it to the point where I saw the characters rather than the actors and I never quite engaged with the piece. I could see from faces sat around the other sides of the square that I wasn’t alone in this, although there were others who laughed loudly at the right points and did seem to enjoy it much more.
So, the basic premise is that we have a young couple who initially meet in a pet cemetery, and go on to form a relationship which has some points of tension; the ex, the wage differential, backgrounds, her job. Overlying all this is some new legislation that restricts everyone to just 140 words a day to say everything that needs to be said. The story is told in jumps forward and backwards across timelines, to before, when words were freely available and to after, when the limits are in place. It was extremely hard for me to warm to this play, despite the qualities of the two (unnamed in the publicity) actors who both seemed perfectly capable and, in different circumstances, I suspect I would use much more positive words.
There are so many interesting concepts around the control of speech, communication without words, relationships with constrained communication, the role of the state in controlling language use, and some are touched on here; the way that this would affect the already-priviliged more than those trying to climb out of poverty, how an exemption is given to the Houses of Parliament and how it covers the multiple bars, restaurants, shops, gyms and other facilities that collect there. There are good ideas here, but it didn’t quite gel for me. And the main reason for that is that there were great big gaping holes in the story that weren’t addressed in the slightest, and the idea was just that: an idea, with no explanation, no how or why.
I’m really not sure if I’m some sort of cultural imbecile who just doesn’t get the finer nuances, or I’m an aging grump who doesn’t like her pub being filled with hipsters, or even if metaphors and stuff are just too much for my delicate brain. I suspect that any of my friends who read this will tut and tell me to stop thinking like a scientist (I can’t!). I do spend a lot of time reading fantasy/science fiction and I’m pretty sure that this basic idea has been explored in ways that just make more sense, rather than dumping it into our world, our time, and leaving so, so many unanswered and unanswerable questions about the practicalities.
And the main reason for this is simple; the storyline. It made no sense, in so many ways. Who is doing the counting? How is the law enforced? At one point the male character runs out of words mid-argument. What makes that happen? Can people still read, and write? If so, why aren’t the couple communicating that way instead of making frustrated faces at each other. If reading/writing is not allowed, how on earth is she continuing in her job of divorce lawyer? In fact, how is any part of society carrying on? If two intelligent people knew this law was coming in, why didn’t they spend a few weeks doing a sign language crash course? Are words in sign language counted? If so, are gestures or non-standard sign languages also counted? Apparently morse code is allowed, so why not just learn that? Why do they waste so many words saying ‘zero’ and ‘one-hundred-and-ten’ (or is it one hundred and ten?)? Every day they tell each other how many words they have left; why not just use their fingers to show the numbers?
Like I say, I’m probably just a cultural philistine with a lack of ability to suspend belief and an obsession with the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of life. So I wouldn’t necessarily say go out of your way to seek this piece out but check it out for yourself if you get a chance.
Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons runs at The Greenbank, Easton until 23rd April
- Review by Gin Gould