Last year’s live Edinburgh Festival was cancelled; no need to ask why. The event took to online platforms and among these was the Shedinburgh Festival which consisted of one off live streams from past fringe stalwarts broadcast from a shed (actually it was two – one at the Traverse in Edinburgh and one at Soho Theatre in London). Principally it was a fund raising exercise to support new artists and raised over £20,000. It’s back this year running alongside a slimmed down live Festival and once again has an eclectic mix of theatre, comedy and music on offer. One of the highlights of last year’s shed-ule was the quirky hit White Rabbit Red Rabbit; this year, in similar vein, we have Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons.
First performed at the Fringe by the then newly formed Walrus Theatre, it has been recreated many times since and played around the whole country, invariably to sell out audiences. It’s a complex tale part rom-com, part dystopian satire but above all it is a play on words – literally. Bernadette and Oliver meet, of all places, in a pet cemetery, move in together and sustain a relationship sometimes fractious but always loving. He is an aspiring musician with a strong political motivation; she is a divorce lawyer (though the term family lawyer is regarded as preferable and “nicer”) less inclined to activism but willing to be supportive. He seems somewhat resentful of her career; she is not best pleased about Julie, a spectre from his past. This standard plot is set against a background of increasing repression as the government seeks to introduce a Quietude Bill which will limit everyone to speaking just 140 words per day; presumably this is a nod to Twitter’s original 140 characters rule. Dubbed the “Hush Law” there is little attempt to explain the rationale behind this repression, but Bernadette thinks it will never get onto the statute books while Oliver engages in political protest to try and ensure that it doesn’t. It does though and this makes for tensions in the relationship particularly when it is revealed that because of Bernadette’s work she is allowed a dispensation – shades of the current “one rule for them and one rule for us” debate.
So, we become witness to the couple’s attempts to circumvent the new system by utilising abbreviations and contractions (“I love you” becomes “loveoo”), by tapping things out in Morse code or simply by using their spiritual connection to read each other’s minds. Inevitably tensions arise. Should they save their word restriction for when they are together; does failure to hoard up their allowance say something about their sense of commitment; does any of it really matter? Beth Holmes and Euan Kitson originated the roles of Bernadette and Oliver and return to them here with the clear advantage of an almost symbiotic relationship at work. Although this is a script in hand performance the pair clearly remember quite a bit of the text such that the books do not become intrusive. The decision to just have them sitting on chairs, though, robs the occasion of some sparkle. While they only have limited space in “the shed” I did feel there was perhaps a bit more that could have been done in this area – see Theater In Quarantine, which is performed in a converted 8 foot square closet, for ideas.
Sam Steiner’s clever and dense script really makes one think about how words are used and abused. It takes a while to unpack as it is non-linear with (sometimes very short) scenes played out both from before and after the restrictions are imposed. In some instances, the pair bark numbers at each other which seems random and meaningless until it becomes evident that they are giving an indication to each other of how many words they have left. Scenes also flow into each other with little attempt to delineate where one ends and another begins. This was particularly tricky to follow as there is nothing to indicate the time shifts other than a slight pause. Gradually the pieces of the jigsaw come together but by then I found I was itching to rewind and replay the earlier portions. Increasingly I found myself mulling over exactly what the “rules” surrounding the restrictions were. How were the characters monitoring themselves or supposedly being monitored? What was the sanction(s) for rule breaking? When they stated the number of words left, did this count towards their total? In a sense none of this matters but I’m afraid the pedant in me started to take over and I was frustrated that the answers were never going to be forthcoming. As a part of the Fringe’s history it was an interesting if brief revival and I was glad to have caught up with it after all this time. As a curtain raiser I also enjoyed Tim Crouch’s SHED Talk (see what they did there?) making a clever connection between theatre and farming. This plays for the rest of this week while Shedinburgh itself continues until the end of the month.
Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons streamed live as part of the online Shedinburgh Festival – click here
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