Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner star in the annoyingly-titled Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, the West End debut of Sam Steiner’s character-limited dissertation on the importance of words. Here’s our Lemons review.
For a play about the economy of words, it’s helpful that Lemons’ most affecting moments come from what’s left unsaid rather than what is. Written back in the innocent, pre-populist days of 2015, Steiner’s Edinburgh Fringe mega-hit takes on a bittersweet tang in 2023 which threatens to overshadow its language-laden conceit. Thankfully, it’s a hook strong enough to take the hit, and director Josie Rourke delivers a rock-solid adaptation of a smart and incisive first play.
The year is TERRIFYING DYSTOPIA, and a new bill prevents the citizenry from saying more than 140 words a day (on pain of something grisly and unpleasant, like a fine, one imagines). Not that that’s immediately clear from the off: one of Lemons’ smartest decisions is to present its story gloriously out of sequence, placing long and meandering chats alongside glimpses into its oppressive post-count world.
Simply staged in front of a wall of cluttered digital shelves, the production smartly lets the script do the talking: Coleman and Turner are Bernadette and Oliver, respectively, a couple who met in a pet cemetery and whose relationship is unsurprisingly tested when they’re legally prevented from speaking to each other.
They make a good couple. He’s an aspiring musician and a revolutionary; she’s a divorce lawyer and a pragmatist. They both inhabit their roles well, and their easy chemistry quickly becomes a believable portrait of a pair comfortable with each other’s quirks. It’s a tough ask to pin the entire play upon their dynamic, though, and the duo never quite ramp up to the emotional heights of the script’s biggest gut punches.
Still, Lemons works pretty well as a slow-burn, and the big questions it puts forward are more than enough to skate over the cracks in this particular staging. In Rourke’s hands, the story becomes more of a cautionary tale about communicating in a relationship than anything else – a rom-com with a fascist backdrop rather than the zeitgeisty trap it could easily have fallen into.
There’s still a deep profundity in the play’s hook, though. It’s difficult to appreciate something until it’s gone, and so watching Bernadette stop halfway through a song because her count is up is a moment it’s difficult not to be moved by. Most shows won’t change how you see the world; though the Harold Pinter production doesn’t add much more to a uniquely powerful script, it doesn’t need to. Sometimes, the words are just enough.