In Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, the government is legislating to limit everyone to 140 spoken words a day. Against this intriguing and arbitrary limit on communication, a love story plays out. Playwright Sam Steiner has written a thoughtful, intelligent play, and one that is brought to life with real warmth in the performance.
The play works in two modes. Scenes set before the law is passed allow the actors to move freely, revelling in using language to flirt, argue, and discuss the politics and impact of the proposed restrictions. Post-legislation, they are physically limited; standing opposite each other at microphones, the conversation is staccato, there are lots of numbers, and each word is freighted with meaning.
The play very much makes its own point about how the limit will stifle debate, because the change in the law is only properly discussed in more discursive pre-limit times. When the restriction is in operation, the play very much concentrates on the relationship between Bernadette and Oliver. Can the number of words you leave for talking with your partner be correlated with your commitment to the relationship? Do you save them for a proper discussion, fritter them away on misunderstandings, or blow them gloriously on the the rap from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?
The acting is wonderful. Beth Holmes as Bernadette is cheeky and smart, while as Oliver, Euan Kitson is laconic and earnest. And the way the pair interact and bounce off each other is a joy to watch. Oliver is a musician and activist, a leader of the campaign against the hush law – whereas Bernadette, a lawyer, is laissez-faire, seeing that it's a bad law but assuming it will never come to pass. If each scene seems just a beat too long, and I feel I’ve got the point they’re making a moment before each exchange ends, perhaps the chemistry and connection between the actors is short-circuiting the dialogue – a wordless communication that transmits to the audience.
No effort is made to explain how the limit on speech is to be enforced, which is fine; this is an absurdist thought experiment, after all. But despite going through many alternatives (Morse code, abbreviations, eye contact), there are basic methods of communication left unconsidered. Writing seems so glaringly obvious one can only assume it is also illegal, but what about touch? A handshake, a hug, a shove: it’s such a key part of how we communicate. It appears to have been a deliberate decision to exclude it – the actors never come together at any point, even during sex – but it’s niggled at me since I saw Holmes pat Kitson on the back in a moment of silent communication as they left the stage at the end.
But I try to ignore these quibbles, because Lemons does succeed. And it succeeds because, alongside its determinedly intellectual inquiry into the nature of communication, at its heart it is a touching love story – played with such warmth and zest that you’ll be hard-pressed not to fall for it.