Economy of language is everything in Sam Steiner's accomplished debut, written while still a student at Warwick University. Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons posits a state-imposed word-limit - just 140 a day - and teases out the implications, blossoming into a seething critique of austerity politics. Force people to live under arbitrary constraints and you essentially dehumanise them.
Bernadette (Beth Holmes) and Oliver (Euan Kitson) are a young couple learning to live within their linguistic means under the Quietude Bill. They develop a shorthand to scrimp on their words - 'loveou' for 'I love you' - and keep schtum at work for a conversation at home. With limited resources, you have to make choices: career or relationship, this word or that? Can you mourn a lost pet or is that self-indulgent? The very process of choosing is a drain in itself. Sex becomes silent and stuttering; relationships, imbalanced; protest, impossible. Life grows self-conscious and the world seems to shrink, reduced by reductive language.
'It's bright, light and sharp - a rom-com with smarts'
Jumping back and forth either side of the Hush Law's introduction, Lemons... lets you see what you've got before its gone. Bernadette and Oliver - she's a lawyer, he's an activist, both reliant on language - spew words around in a world where talk is cheap. It's not hard to spot the parallels with the babble and blather of social media, all that content-free content and online 'opinion'.
It's smart on the language of love too: the way private terminologies and in-jokes emerge, then come to define, even to carry, a relationship, and the sincere 'I love yous' that get passed on like batons. You really tune into the writing too: the number of first-person pronouns that flutter through the text, the double meanings and synonyms.
Occasionally, the austerity allegory screams like a boiling kettle, and you can spot Steiner's spider-diagram of themes rather easily. It's a play that skims the surface, rather than digging deep, but it's bright, light and sharp - a rom-com with smarts.