20th April 2016
Apparently 123,205,750 words will pass from the lips of the average person in a lifetime. Almost solely facilitating our social interactions, it is with words that we express our innermost thoughts, find common ground with others, nurture romantic love and create the interchanging private codes that form the basis of each of new relationship. Also, in contradicting the interminable capacity for language, expression through words can feel somehow limited and restrictive, functioning as a tool for deception, confusion, annoyance and misunderstanding.
All this is explored in Walrus’ clever, considered and imaginatively economic play, a debut production from the Warwick theatre group that has garnered deservedly glowing reviews and a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer. After first meeting in the unlikely setting of a cat cemetery, Bernadette (Beth Holmes) and Oliver (Euan Kitson) get talking and begin stirring up a romance that soon results in them living together. Bernadette is a plucky and driven family lawyer (preferred to the term “divorce” lawyer), while Oliver is a sincere, though slightly neurotic musician.
Though some challenges are already apparent – Bernadette seems wary of Oliver’s activist ex-girlfriend Julie while Oliver seems prone to irritation – the relationship is placed under further scrutiny when the government invoke a new “hush law” which sees each citizen restricted to the use of 140 words per day. Words become a cherished currency and it’s imperative that each one is made to count. Jealousy occurs with a balance needing to be struck between words used for others and those saved for the relationship. The couple struggle and feel the limitations but cope as best they can with mime, Morse code, eye contact and a pre-planned system of new abbreviations supplementing their word count.
Shifting back and forth between the conversational freedom of the pre hush law past and the word-limited present, no word in Sam Steiner’s excellent script is wasted and, similarly to the predicament of the two characters, the audience is compelled to read between the lines of both the cryptic and the more expansive dialogue. Tonight’s unconventional upstairs-above-a-bar venue – part of Tobacco Factory’s off-site season – has the audience sat on all four sides of the small space in which the actors perform and effectively draws them further into this intimate world.
The play touches on some interesting themes in its study of communication: We hear the inconsistent value of certain words like “love” or “really”, a slightly absurd cheese grater analogy suggesting that romantic relationships are a private language of in-jokes and pet names to be avoided, or else devalued, with someone new and the social media age (the hush law limit of 140 words perhaps mirrors the 140 characters of Twitter) propensity to shorten, abbreviate and bastardise language.
Though the hush law feels like a somewhat desultory artistic device thrown in without any whys or wherefores, this is nonetheless an intelligent and engrossing play that will leave the audience thinking way beyond its 60 minute running time.