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Strategic Love Play at Soho Theatre | Review

Perhaps there’s something about going to a searingly brilliant two-handed contemporary ‘comedy’ of manners (in this case the word ‘comedy’ should be lightly affixed to ‘of menace’ as usually associated with Harold Pinter’s brand of dark and involuted humour) about not just online dating but the strategic pursuit of connection, acceptance and – quite simply – love, that makes me want to dig into the wider market statistics.  Research by the UK’s Ofcom (2023) claims that 20% of all people aged 25 to 34 use dating apps but a different study from the States indicates that 30% of all adults have been on the apps at some point. Tellingly from both sources – fluffy Valentine’s themed news generation PR exercises – they celebrate that around 40% of users find online dating makes it ‘easier for them’.  Which, of course, means that for the vast majority (60%) it’s not easier at all.  And it is this lack of ease – not inconvenience – but rather the kind of uneasiness that is closer to a visceral horror of being inside one’s own skin that marks Mariam Battye’s work as compelling theatre and much more than a very clever topical sketch buzzing down from the Fringe.

Archie Backhouse and Letty Thomas in Strategic Love Play. Photo credit: Pamela Raith
Archie Backhouse and Letty Thomas in Strategic Love Play. Photo credit: Pamela Raith

With just enough absurdity, like a Millennial prequel that might belong to the multi-verse of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Strategic Love Play perfectly occupies a liminal space between the specific overthinking and insecurity of its characters, Helen (Letty Thomas) and Adam (Archie Blackhouse) and quite simply everyone’s desire to be loved and accepted. Katie Posner’s direction is impeccable – one note too ‘crazy’ and all sympathy would be lost; but, likewise, the same would happen if she veered too far into naturalism or played it too hard for laughs. Thomas and Blackhouse both manage to show the most extraordinary range over the course of 70 minutes of dialogue without having to reach for heightened theatricality – but at the same time (despite also possessing the subtilty of close-up acting) are squarely offering a stage performance of the best kind and exactly the right scale for its surroundings. And they manage to generate every conceivable kind of chemistry between them – whether bonding or repelling or reactive.

This work is tight, compelling, hilarious and painful: it is so nearly perfect and without a doubt is absolutely a thought-provoking and entertaining must-see. And yet, I reserve one niggle for it that I can’t decide is central to it dramatically or a flippant and jejune deus ex machina.  I suggest you check it out and decide for yourself – it’s worth every penny to wonder.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

Strategic Love Play returns to the stage after an award-winning, sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2023, followed by a UK tour which included a stint at Soho Theatre, where it played the Upstairs Space. Letty Thomas and Archie Backhouse, having originated the lead roles in 2023, will make their return in this new run.

Written by Miriam Battye (SuccessionScenes with girls at the Royal Court) and directed by Paines Plough’s Joint Artistic Director Katie PosnerStrategic Love Play takes place on an awkward first date, speaking uncomfortable truths about modern dating and romance with acid wit.

23 May to 15 June 2024
Soho Theatre

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  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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