By Adele Cooke
In a world where words and their quantity are pivotal, Sam Steiner’s play Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons mediates upon the importance of using few words to speak volumes. This duologue is set on the premise that the government have set a new law, issuing each individual with only one hundred and forty words per day – the length of a tweet. In a climate of so-called “fake news,” this play highlights that criticism of communication is as relevant as it was in the pages of George Orwell’s 1984 or Margret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.
With minimal staging and lighting, Steiner emphasis that “sometimes you don’t have to say things” to convey your message. Phoenix Theatre’s production for the Durham Festival of the Arts took this simplicity to the nth degree, with an absence of props, intricate costume or visual effects. Instead, the staging placed emphasis on the importance of words themselves. This also reduced the detachment of audience and actor. Instead, Ambika Mod and Andrew Cowburn could be you or me, making the premise of the so-called “hush law” appear perfectly probable.
Bursting with cobbled-together student charm, I wouldn’t exactly say this production was professional – but it was undeniably entertaining. Filled with humour, wit and a fair number of lemons, the show was well received by its audience, who laughed genuinely and frequently throughout. However, arguably this was primarily due to the excellent script, rather than the performance. At times the acting seemed to be more like an extension of Mod and Cowburn’s personalities than legitimate acting talent. This was further apparent as transitions between time periods were very simplistic, often with Cowburn rotating one hundred and eighty degrees as the marker. Again, this emphasised that the play is a piece of amateur student theatre and not a professional production. In terms of movement, Mod and Cowburn created frequent repetition, either facing each other or one turned away to engage with the audience. This produced a sense of identification with these individuals, as Bernadette and Oliver find their characterisation in other twentieth century millennials. Although it also became predictable after several scenes.
In terms of sound, the use of Morse code and drumming illustrated the importance of language not only as a verbal, but also a gestural medium. This helped to break up the continuous utterance and response structure of the play, which if unchecked could become dull and monotonous. The many elements of communication were also highlighted as both Mod and Cowburn used volume, pace and pitch to create emphasis, again illuminating the importance of not just what is said, but how.
However, my one major criticism would be the awkward performance of two intimate scenes, which left the audience in fits of nervous laughter. These scenes appeared a little unnecessary and should have been cut as they were not executed effectively. Despite this, there were many entertaining moments, encompassing not just politics but “dead cats, activism, eye contact, and lemons, lemons, lemons, lemons, lemons.”
Overall this performance was moderately entertaining and humorous, but can’t be described as polished. It was enjoyable due to its dynamic plot, clever concept and amusing lines, which were executed with the charm of unpolished student drama. Arguably this play is not the pinnacle of Mod or Cowburn’s acting careers, as they demonstrated their performance abilities better in Party and Alfie respectively. However, it’s a play that’s still worth a watch and good for a laugh or two.
‘Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons’ will be performed in the Black Box at Vane Tempest, Durham Student Union from Friday 16 June until Saturday 17 June at 18:35. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Phoenix Theatre Company