Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons
By Sam Steiner
Review by Simon Jenner
So you might speak about 123,205,750 words in a lifetime but what happened if a new law rationed you? A bit like the 140 characters in a tweet, so you literally aren’t allowed to utter another word, even making love, and when you meet at a dead cat cemetery and fall in love, have to get ingenious.
Think Nick Payne’s Constellations meets Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living (like the Steiner, from 2015) or even Zamyatin’s We.
Sam Steiner’s first play Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons 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.
Steiner’s taken the short-scenes-punctuated-with-dark method to heart; and here in his first play rendered an intricate two-act dance where some of the first moments of a couple are only portrayed in the earlier part of the second act, counterpointed with scenes towards the end of the narrative.
So it’s not say Constellations’ unfolding fan of possibilities chronologically straight; more an artful holding back of moments neatly counterpointing revelations out of sequence. For instance we first meet the couple reciting the number of words they have left, or used up; a frequent ritual. Then an early scene at the cat cemetery, and then one where they’re patting something on the ground, which you take as a grave. Only later you might recall it, and what it is.
We meet reflective, apolitical if verbally confident Bernadette; a pupil family lawyer. She’s visiting Dennis. Dennis is a cat. And Dennis is dead. Such expansive phrases soon might not be allowed. Publicly extroverted but privately unsure, Oliver, a musician composing jingles and dedicated protester (including improvised musical instruments), is also there, having tried to save the cat being crushed by police. And he’s protesting the Hush Laws. Sounds familiar, something we’re protesting about now? This is even darker. The government rations your use of words and somehow they know. Punishment isn’t specified but clearly it’s not good.
The way we communicate with silence, the way we – as this couple do – end up learning morse code, the way every word counts but meanings might get squeezed out, all are highlighted, and are important.
Steiner though probes something else. How we behave and turn complicit with any government or authority directive, and how we adapt to even the most absurd laws, having protested against them. Own behaviour, especially vital communication, you own the world. And it impacts on how we can relate at all. And we’re already doing it, learning to use 140 characters. Abiding by rules set by technological limits set by capital imperatives. Steiner’s neat ingenuity is dazzlingly true.
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!’
This production, set with limited distancing seating in the New Venture Theatre Studiom is a confident directorial debut by Cata Lindegaard. Set design’s by Judith Berrill and Simon Glazier, providing a dark leathery sofa upstage, stage right a simple black square table and chairs, and a beautifully-executed L-shaped surround. This features word hoards from the play; blue and blue bold on white with tear effects on the boards’ design: a striking take on what’s occurring. Straightforward pinpoint, suffuse and fade elements render a clean lighting design by Strat Mastoris, The tick-tok sound design and Props are Lindegaard’s.
Steiner’s appealing, normative characters negotiate an arc of attraction – we see it develop a little in the earlier part of the second act – but because of the structure we only see it rise to a crisis obliquely, in counterpoint and this too is Steiner’s point. There’s flash-points. Bernadette’s working class and middle-class Oliver earning less (which she politely tries to factor in, making things worse) is the virtue-signaller, trying to appeal to her class interest. Bernadette though refuses to be reductively defined by the fact she’s working class. Oliver has an old flame on these marches, Julie, and though he claims she’s put on weight after abandoning the Atkins Diet, we only get an explanation late on as to why they broke up, and then a couple of artfully placed shocks.
All this is set against word-rationing Oliver initially protests against. Beatrice comes with him finally – if only to see Julie. Creating neologisms to reduce the number of characters used, they’re crafting a private language of necessity. But resorting to morse code might help, and is infinite. There’s a touching sense when this happens. Will it be enough?
Both Paris Nethercott-Cable and Rhys Wilson-Plant are recent graduates (he in New York), have agents and are making their NVT debuts here. Nethercott-Cable’s in her fourth annual Fringe, already writing and directing her own work.
The two actors give exemplary performances, by their nature take just a few moments to settle into rhythm (seen on the first night) Very soon though the couple are enveloped in overlapping dialogue, fights, silences and sudden touching affections, making love back-to-back or down on all fours trying to innovate obsolete Morse as a redemptive tongue. Steiner strikes many if not all notes; not in some arc but in this rising counterpoint. Nethercott-Cable and Wilson-Plant grasp their vanishing world in characters: you believe them. If you love new theatre, worth queuing for returns.