I had high hopes for Love, Love, Love. Mike Bartlett has a growing reputation as an accomplished new theatre voice, Paines Plough are a great company whose dedication to new writing in unparallelled in the UK and the play has been surrounded by a lot of excited chatter since the tour began. Unfortunately my hopes were not well-founded: it is one of the more disappointing evenings in the theatre in recent months.
In many ways, this is quite an old-fashioned script. Playwrights have shied away from the three act structure in recent decades but Bartlett uses it well to allow for the significant passage of time that his narrative demands. Moving from 1967 through to 1990 and then ending in the present day, it is nothing if not ambitious. However the delivery of the different time periods does not quite match our expectations. The costumes feel right but there is a lack of real authenticity in the set and often the language jars slightly – not quite tuning into the necessary linguistic vibes.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the play is in the level of characterisation. I am not saying that it is necessary to find all the characters in a play to be sympathetic, but when you cannot engage with the central pair in such a small cast, then something has gone wrong. Kenneth and Sandra are deeply unsympathetic characters and it is hard to invest in their relationship.
For what is billed as a comedy, there are precious few laugh lines. I think I counted three during the course of the evening – which is not quite enough. The middle act is by far the strongest and could form the basis for a very satisfying reworking of the script. The evocation of family life, whilst somewhat over-heightened, has the smack of authenticity and provides the best moments in the play.
The play is not best served by the direction which, at times, seems to value volume over content. Shouting can be used to good effect on stage – but not constantly. All too often, lines are lost because the actors had been told shout over and over and over again. Add to this some exaggerated characterisation – particularly from the actor playing Sandra and it feels all too much.
Bartlett says that he does not have a message for the audience and that they should take away whatever they want from it. However he does, in the third act, launch into an political rant which sits at odds with the rest of the play and sounds more hectoring than narrative or character-driven.
There is a good play to be written about the baby boomer generation and their relationship with their children but this is not it.