The great problem with theatre is that can be so embarrassingly unsubtle, wearing its ideas as self-consciously and as inappropriately as a tubby 17-year-old in a too tight mini dress. Too often playwrights and performers hit audiences over the head with earnest yet inane ideas. Faced with limp dialogue and half-thought-out ideas, plays too often fall back on shouting to imply the SERIOUSNESS and IMPORTANCE of what’s unfolding in front of your eyes.
Love, Love, Love is one of those shouty, shouty, blah, blah plays where middle class people yell at each other, slam doors and wave their arms around until we’ve all completely forgotten what the point was. Except we know that it’s all deeply profound. Because they’re shouting. And smoking. And holding a wine glass in a manner that implies the character is drunk. Which means they’re Deeply Unhappy and have Important Things To Say. All this yelling and flailing about combines to convince us that we’ve just seen something new and visionary rather than the same old ideas recycled louder than last time you saw exactly the same play under a different name.
We meet Sandra and Kenneth in 1967 as we watch them fall in love soundtracked by The Beatles and a joint in their hands, ignoring Henry, Kenneth’s brother who Sandra had originally come round to spend the evening with – the first example of the selfishness of a couple concerned only with their own pleasures. We meet them again in 1990, now married and living in Reading with two teenager children – Rose, a promising violinist, and Jamie, who may be highly intelligent or ‘different’. Still yearning for the carefree life that they never really had, the couple combust over a bottle of wine. Fast-forward to now and the children are grown-ups with their own demons (including, Rose’s *gasp* terrible problem of not being able afford a house) while Sandra and Kenneth (now divorced, but still friends) bury their heads in the wine bucket.
Broken down there’s little to like or admire in this play, but despite flaws bigger than the average 30-something’s debt, I enjoyed Love, Love, Love. The performances were great; Victoria Hamilton’s been singled out by most reviewers as the standout star, but there were times, particularly in the first act, when she seemed too aware of all those admiring critics’ eyes. Claire Foy played a Claire Foy character; she scowled, she shouted, she scowled a bit more, but she does it (just) without being too drama school (it’s no coincidence she made a very convincing teenager). George Rainsford as Jamie gave an excellent portrayal of an ambiguously damaged young man while Ben Miles’ Kenneth was a nicely judged foil to Hamilton’s exuberant Sandra. And – the first two acts at least – were lightened by laughter. There were a couple of great one liners – “Everyone’s family is boring, that’s why London exists, as somewhere to escape to”, “something’s gone wrong” “nothing’s gone wrong” “yes it has, we’re living Reading.” Who knew Reading could lead to so many jokes?
The cast deserves applause at the very least for disguising many of the flaws in the writing. They managed to brush off the clichés they were forced to utter and ignore the clunkier points as they dropped like lead balloons from their mouths – there were times that I almost covered my eyes as I thought “oh no, you’re going to say… please don’t say… oh you’ve said it”. The play also suffers from the “Downton Abbey problem” where characters speak as if they know what the future holds (“Things are changing, in 10 years time the world will be a different place,” Sandra says in 1967). You can only learn so much from a lava lamp.
As with so many of these middle class family dramas, the characters were odious (and female characters seem to suffer most at the writer’s hand in this respect). Surely their repulsiveness dilutes the point the writer’s trying to make? (Although in this case, I’m not sure what the point is – is it our parents’ fault that we’re not prime minister and can’t afford a house in Hampstead? Ah, it’s our fault because we watch YouTube. And we need a buy a house to be happy? No, we don’t? It’s not about money. Oh, it is about money.) If these people were more sympathetic, in fact, if these characters were less like cardboard cutout stereotypes from the playwrights Book Of Dramatic Characters, wouldn’t their cause be easier to understand? LLL also suffers from some very awkward time shifting with the decade scene setting mildly embarrassing. It’s the 60s (“pot!, The Beatles!); Oh, look it must be 1990 because the son’s dancing to The Stone Roses and the mother’s clothes still have a whiff of 80s-power dressing about them; iPhones! iPads! Facebook! – it must be NOW. At least the mother didn’t have a blog and no one mentioned the financial crisis.
The play does have things to say, and on a personal level there were parts that I empathised with. “You don’t hear me”, shouts (obviously) Rose in the final act. A common cause of complaint amongst my friends and I (and yes, First World problems) is that our parents take a baffling lack of interest – to the point of being hostile to our interests – in their children’s lives, just as Sandra and Kenneth pay their kids so little attention that they don’t even know who their daughter lives with. But then maybe parents have always been disinterested in their children’s lives; our grandparents’ generation was so shaped by the war that they must have looked upon our parents as aliens from another planet with their tie-dye and reaching-for-the-moon dreams. One of the more interesting, but under explored, points in Mike Bartlett’s script was that it was the sense of entitlement our parents instilled in us that has been our biggest ball and chain. We were brought up to believe we could do anything, have it all, when in reality most of us will only ever lead rather mediocre lives. Rose, a slightly above average violinist at 16, was encouraged to “follow her dream” and is now a not very good jobbing one at 37, why, she wants to know, didn’t her parents tell her? But, ultimately, it’s a dumb argument, because, even if your mother does prefer Pinto Grigio to you, by the time you’re nearly 40, you should have figured out that you are in the driver’s seat of your life.
These middle-class family dramas have been done so many times – and with so much more to say – that Barlett would have had to work hard to come up with something new. And he didn’t. Fortunately, in the hands of fine actors, Love, Love, Love is enjoyable in spite of itself.