Julian Eaves reviews Love Love Love by Mike Bartlett presented as part of BBC Radio 3’s Lockdown Theatre Festival.
Love Love Love
Lockdown Theatre Festival
BBC Radio 3, Sunday 14th June 2020
Listen to it now
If there’s one thing about Radio drama, it teaches you how important voice is in theatre, and how important all the other elements of physical theatrical production are. This Mike Barlett play, recently brilliantly revived at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, by their new artistic director, Rachel O’Riordan, was one of the victims of the mass closure of UK theatres. When I saw it there, like the rest of the audience, I was swept away by this story’s magnificent ability to convince you that the characters we see really age through decades from 1967 to (almost) the present. In three acts, three different kinds of ‘Love’ are wheeled out for our inspection. As various fashions and forms flit by, some so transitory we hardly notice them, but others present stylistic challenges to the cast that make this far from an easy play to pull off.
The tale begins with a Pinter-esque exchange for two working-class men, one of whom has been propelled into the middle-class environment of Oxford’s university, thanks to the grants system, Nicholas Burns’ very David Hemmings’ish Kenneth, the other, Patrick Knowles’s drearily grey Henry, drudges for little money and with few prospects. This slides neatly into a David Mercer-esque 3-cornered dialogue between these men and that standby of 60s drama, ‘the outsider’. In this case, the newcomer is a more securely middle-class woman who has a date with one of the men, but rapidly finds her interest more strongly drawn towards the other. This is the show’s strongest card, as it turns out: here, Rachel Stirling got to play the girl, Sandra. They all talk a great deal, but the chat means much less than the physical manoeuvring: this is caught very well – sometimes – by the clever sound engineering (Adam Woodhams, although I think his main problem is having to ‘merge’ the different acoustics in which the individual actors have recorded their ‘roles’, before they are all ‘edited together’ to make the ‘production’). The men sound a lot younger to radio microphones than they did in the theatre auditorium; but Stirling’s costume and make-up distracted more than I realised from the deep, resonant huskiness of her more mature vocal instrument.
The next act blasts us into one of the many crises of the Thatcher era: the poll tax riots are in full progress, but Kenneth and Sandra are upwardly mobile yuppies with a brace of yapping, arguing teenagers adding variety to their Reading townhouse. Here, Mike Laughland’s Jamie has a lot to pack into his few words: this is not a problem on stage, but is difficult to make happen with only sound available; and Isabella Laughland’s Rose – again – has a ‘part’ which, as written, is deliberately playing second fiddle to her monumental ‘sulk’, which became the glory of Laughland’s performance in Hammersmith. As for Stirling, the costume given to her in the theatre was an exercise in what might be called Bee-Gees Berketex; that, combined with hair and make-up and shoes and accessories, created a truly terrifying monster, which the amiable lines could then by played ‘against’, elevating the superficial triteness of much of what is said.
The longer I stayed with this radio production, at times the more I felt that it might have been more successful if given an entirely new interpretation by a fresh cast. But that isn’t the point of this series of recordings. They are what they are: a record of what was lost at this particular moment. Nevertheless, in making them ‘radio plays’, that is when we notice that there are times when the cast just ‘get it’ so right that the language can be heard much more acutely and closely than in the real theatre.
The ‘turning point’ in the play – the discovery of that mainstay of the British theatre (according to Noel Coward, its chief preoccupation), ‘infidelity amongst the middle classes’ – is wheeled out in a gin-hazed sit-com moment. It does sound as if it has ‘popped into their heads’, sadly, as with lots of the plot machinery in Bartlett plays. Now, we get ‘The Wrongly Accused Woman’, ‘The Philandering – and Careless – Husband’. We hear a little of their backgrounds, but nothing substantial materialises. With so little at stake – apart from the egos of the participants – it is a stretch to care about this corny situation. Such a minor detail does not deter our cast, however, who smash their way through it with pick-axe handles, especially Stirling, who has fun throwing the gear stick into full reverse, then full acceleration, umpteen times. Still, Sandra gets the biggest and best speech of the act to bring the house down, as houses love to be, just at the brink of the close of the second act.
In the final act, the play serves us up an even more ambiguous and elliptical world, where the divorced couple gets to look back over the ashes of their past (literally, with an urn of the mortal remains of brother Henry keeping them company). Rose is working hard, but broken and bitter, seeing the rungs of the ladder of life raised so high now that there seems little chance of her ever getting to grab the lowest one to ‘get her start’; Jamie has given up altogether on real-life and lives at home like a perpetual pet with his dad. And the once-married couple seems closer than ever.
It’s great to hear this all again, and hear it in such a different way, one that will bear repeated listening. You never know, you might even get a chance to see it one day in a real theatre.