The setup of a possible dystopia that Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons sets out isn’t entirely watertight. Legislation has been passed to limit the number of words that people can say to 140 per day. To try and put this figure in some context, I went to the ted.com website and found transcripts of a couple of ‘TED Talks’. One, at just under twelve minutes, came in at just over 1,600 words, and another, at five minutes and forty-three seconds, was 795 words long. Her Majesty the Queen’s Christmas Message, broadcast on 25th December 2018, was 650 words long.
It isn’t entirely clear why this piece of legislation was passed, or indeed how anyone could get around it. There’s a need to go with the flow with this production as Bernadette (Jemima Murphy) and Oliver (Charlie Suff) seem somehow to intuitively know how many words they have remaining whenever they meet, irrespective of how tired they are from a stressful day at the office. A laptop gets whipped out every so often, which made me wonder if the word limit could be circumvented by extensive use of email, SMS, social media, and so on.
There isn’t a mobile phone on stage at any point, and whenever the limit is reached, the person simply stops speaking somehow, such that there isn’t any penalty served on anyone for exceeding the limit, because by some miraculous method or other, the limit is never exceeded. There doesn’t seem to be a way of buying additional words from the Government, which would be a real cash cow for the Treasury.
Bernadette and Oliver come up with ideas of their own, such as making up their own abbreviations and a form of Morse code. There’s nothing inherently odd about that – some couples do indeed have their own manners of speaking to one another. The questions keep coming as the show goes on – what about sleep-talkers? Must someone seriously undertake a vow of silence for a day because they mumbled in their sleep? None of this, of course, constitutes a salient point in Lemons, which is really about not saying anything not meaningful – cutting out the noise and waffle, as it were, and saying only what is strictly necessary.
Humans being humans, they learn to adapt, and I would love to have seen a parliamentary debate stripped of the miscellaneous traditional forms of address. Alas, as Oliver explains, the House of Commons is immune: “It’s a live-in sanctuary for the powerful”. There are far too many scenes in this show to count them – in one sequence, six scenes are completed less than half a minute. But that doesn’t mean the production goes at a breakneck pace overall, because – and this naturally follows – the characters must give thought to what they are saying so as to not waste words. Thinking before speaking, then, has the effect of making this one-act play seem longer than it actually is, but paradoxically the slower and truncated sentence structures make the show all the more absorbing.
The duo’s movements are good, if a tad predictable – the further apart they are physically on stage, the further apart they are relationally and emotionally too. The storyline is not in chronological order, and little is gained from flitting about between before and after. Hamish Clayton’s rather thoughtful directing stops the play from being too disorientating, and the authenticity, vulnerability and complexity of both characters becomes increasingly evident. I could take 140 words to recommend Lemons, but I’ll settle for seven – this is an intelligent and intricate production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The British government has introduced a law limiting speech for its citizens to 140 words a day. For Bernadette and Oliver, every word they speak will have to really mean something. They devise new ways to communicate with each other within the constraints of the law, but without the freedom to use words as they wish, they are helpless.
DIRECTOR: Hamish Clayton (Soho Theatre, Mountview MA)
PRODUCER: First Floor Presents, Jemima Murphy & Tom Woffenden
29 April – 19 May 2019
The Barons Court Theatre (View)
28a Comeragh road
London W14 9HR