Friday 13 March 2020

Theatre review: Love, Love, Love

I imagine there's a hiatus coming up in my theatregoing and reviewing, thanks to a certain global situation targeting the Baby Boomers, but in the meantime here's Mike Bartlett's own dig at that generation. After the Brexit result came in I predicted Love, Love, Love would be a play that kept coming back over the years, and here it is as Rachel O'Riordan's second directing gig in her inaugural Lyric Hammersmith season. It follows Sandra (Rachael Stirling) and Kenneth (Nicholas Burns) from first meeting to happy ending - but every chapter in their story has collateral damage they've become uncannily adept at ignoring. The first of these is Kenneth's brother Henry (Patrick Knowles,) whom Sandra has just started dating at the beginning of the play; older by only four years he appears to be from an entirely different generation.

It feels a significant point in this play about people who talk a lot about being born at exactly the right time but aren't willing to take that thought to its natural conclusion that everyone else was born in the wrong one. Henry is quickly discarded as Sandra is more attracted to his brother.

The two are married when we next see them in 1990, but on the night of their daughter Rose's (Isabella Laughland) 16th birthday their relationship implodes quickly and dramatically, and the impact on the children they don't know anywhere near as well as they think is life-changing. The extent is evident in the final scene, years after their divorce when the family gets back together for Henry's funeral. This 2010-set moment should be where all the pigeons come home to roost, as Rose confronts them with the extraordinary amount of financial privilege they've enjoyed compared to the generations before and after them, but Sandra and Kenneth manage to coast through unbothered and unscathed as ever.

This is the third production of Love, Love, Love I've seen, and its strengths as a naturalistic drama are still in evidence, and Rachael Stirling (who's never looked more like her mother Diana Rigg than in the '60s eye makeup of the opening scene) seizes the chance to play a true theatrical monster, boozing her way through her life, belittling her children and scoffing at the idea that she bears any responsibility for how they've turned out. She does have the occasional moment of self-reflection about it, however brief; Kenneth is by contrast a nonentity, but in some ways equally monstrous in the way he dismisses giving Rose's request any thought at all because it would slightly inconvenience him. The couple's ability to turn a blind eye is most dramatically obvious in their son Jamie (Mike Noble,) who's seems to have had at least one nervous breakdown between the second and third scenes, but whose obvious psychological problems they easily handwave away.

But what also stands out here is Bartlett's careful use of structure and symbolism; Sandra and Kenneth have never not seemed like a metaphor for their generation and how they chose to leave the world for the ones after them, but it's undeniable here. The way the second act opens and closes with Jamie dancing to the Stone Roses' "She Bangs The Drums" but meaning entirely different things each time is a microcosm of the mental damage done in that scene alone, while the significance of words and phrases that don't stand up to close scrutiny is in sharp relief. Rose blames her failures on her parents raising her on clichés about following your dreams and being able to do anything, with no backup plan for that turning out to be wrong. The couple's personal mantra of "we're going to die" goes from statement of rebellion to absolving them from the consequences of their actions. And of course the title references the fact that it's easy to say "all you need is love" when you've got money.

The play usually engages with the outside world through TV, whether it's the Beatles performing live to the world in 1967 or the Poll Tax Riots in 1990, and as well as providing three distinct and very fitting sets (I liked the underlying grubbiness of the perfect suburban house in 1990, and the coldness of the luxury 2010 retirement pad) Joanna Scotcher's design references this by framing the scenes in TV silhouettes - boxy in 1967, widescreen by 2010*. Bartlett does give his boomers a chance to defend themselves (although when Kenneth argues he deserves his luxury after working for 40 years, I did kind of wish Rose had pointed out she'd be lucky to only work for 50,) but the play's final image is damning for the couple and all they represent, Sandra and Kenneth dancing off into the sunset, not caring if everything they've left behind is on fire.

Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett is booking until the 4th of April at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including two intervals.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

*actually in that scene the connection with the outside world is mainly phones, so that's probably more what the framing is - fortunately in landscape rather than portrait

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