How many words do you need to express your feelings towards a loved one? And how would it feel if you were suddenly restricted in your ability to convey your thoughts? In Sam Steiner's play Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, this artificial concept becomes the protagonists' harsh reality.


When Bernadette (Jenna Coleman) and Oliver (Aidan Turner) were having lengthy chats about the class divide, freedom of speech and habitual relationships at the beginning of their relationship, the new "Quietude bill" now forbids them to utter more than 140 words a day. Not far-fetched from Twitter's outdated 140-character limit, director Josie Rourke investigates the meaning of speech in interpersonal relationships and what happens when feelings suddenly have to be condensed into one single word.


Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons' creative design is informed by Bernadette's and Oliver's simplified conversations not seldom ending in ellipses. The stage boasts an exorbitant shelf as its backdrop, decorated with a casual collection of homely objects. And in front of it, the actors move in circles around each other as they have lengthy (as well as abbreviated) conversations. Occasionally they examine the power dynamic within their relationship while lounging on the floor. 


Whilst Turner's portrayal of a strong-willed rioter fighting for the freedom of speech draws the audience in from the beginning, Coleman needs a few scenes to warm into her character – a self-assured lawyer from a humble background. Jumping from past to present the two actors have to be quick on their feet and not lose track of their characters' reality. A word being uttered is visualised by vertical lines lighting up and illuminating the stage's backdrop, guiding the audience through the lovers' timeline.


Remarkably, Turner and Coleman achieve a dynamic imitation of the emotional journey their characters undergo. Whilst one might ask what force was at work to unite Bernadette and Oliver as lovers, their opposing characters do in fact provide a refreshing multifariousness. As Coleman's performance shifts from shallow to organic to tediously teary, Turner's manages to lift the mood and add the necessary pinch of humour to the meaningful topic.


However, as much as the actors' energetic laps around the stage engross, one cannot help but feel disappointed by the lack of strong directional choices. A fresh study of the importance of free speech is reduced to a mere auditory experience interlaced with short-lived tableaus of a relationship's life cycle. One of those is the "exorcism", as Coleman's character calls it; a last purge of everything the lovers have ever wanted to say to each other, just before the looming digital clock on the backdrop strikes midnight their expression is forever restrained.


Although built upon a captivating concept, Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons dwells too much on the exponential development of its protagonists' relationship while failing to hone its full potential. 


It runs until 18 March. Tickets from £26: here.


Review: Shirley Both       Photos: Johan Persson