When a playwright wants to evoke a response of empathy from an audience, they often pick a scenario with which the audience can identify, and there are few things that could induce affection and horror in equal measure like memories of a first date. Don’t the feelings just come flooding back when you think about some of yours? The nerves, the small talk, the chatter, the awkwardness, the spark… it’s fertile ground for a comedy that will push all of the audience’s most sympathetic buttons.
That’s the delightfully simple premise for Strategic Love Play. Adam and Jenny have both swiped right on their dating app, and we eavesdrop on their first meeting in a busy pub. We spend the first few minutes trying to figure out whether there’s chemistry between them, and they seem to be calculating that alongside us. He seems natural and chatty, but she seems intense and uptight. Is she toying with him and making things difficult for a laugh, or is something deeper going on?
This two-hander revolves around nothing other than two people (with occasional interaction with their phones) and a pub table and chairs. Its success lies partly in the isolation of the situation, but mostly in Miriam Battye’s script, which taps into the intrinsic awkwardness of the situation and tries to probe what lies beneath the banter. The characters reveal more about themselves as their date continues, and much of the fun of watching it comes from tracking how the disjunct between their personalities softens, or doesn’t.
For the first chunk of the play, Adam seems relaxed and genuine while Jenny seems to contort the conversation around him as though determined never to be happy with one of his answers. “You walk me into rooms I can’t get out of”, he tells her in frustration, and Jenny seems to enjoy laying traps so that she can make a point at him.
Archie Backhouse plays Adam with an air of relaxed frustration, while carefully revealing several aspects of his own difficult past relationships. Letty Thomas’ performance gets right to the heart of what makes Jenny both difficult and vulnerable, presenting a brittle surface that is gently worn down. Critical to a play like this is the chemistry between the two, which is beautifully observed throughout in every contortion, high and low, of their hour spent together.
Those contortions can be a little frustrating, though. As the script charts their relationship journey it isn’t always clear why they go from one stage to another. There’s a key moment where Adam can walk out, and seems determined to do so, but he doesn’t and it isn’t clear why (aside from the fact that he needs to be there for the play to continue). Furthermore, Jenny still seems to throw obstacles in the relationship’s path even after they’ve grown closer. I guess that happens in real-life relationships, but they can be puzzling to watch, and it doesn’t always make for satisfying theatre.
Still, Battye keeps us guessing right to the end, and the combination of the strong performances and deliciously awkward script make this both funny and cringy at once.