Paul T Davies reviews Strategic Love Play at the Mercury Theatre Colchester presented by Paines Plough as part of its tour.
Strategic Love Play
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
30 September 2023
Presented by the mighty Paines Plough, a powerhouse of new writing, Miriam Battye’s play arrives at the Mercury as part of its tour, laden with five starreviews and a Fringe First from Edinburgh. A couple have swiped right and are meeting for the first time, she seeks truth and makes him feel awkward, he feels a bit boring. They have their part relationships at the bar table present in their conversation, and it all seems doomed. But they stay for another drink, and the play questions what we mean by love and whether modern society and social media have uncoupled couples even when they first meet. The strength of the play is in its dialogue, with some witty lines, especially in the first scene. But I found the structure weak, and perhaps the weight of expectations let the play down a bit.
This is to take nothing away from the skilled cast, Archie Backhouse as the Man, put onto the back foot by the originality of his date’s questioning, and when he comes in with a bag of crisps in his mouth, he looks like a vulnerable puppy. Letty Thomas as the Woman also brings out her vulnerability, herfeistiness and straightforward manner clothing her pain. Her pessimism does make me wonder why she is bothering, and the date begins to feel pointless, especially when the pace drops after a strong opening scene. The play does reach a natural conclusion, but continues further into hopelessness.
Rhys Jarman’s inventive set spins and lights up, and, at one point of happiness, lager is poured from the lightshade into a glass. While this creates excellent stage pictures, I did begin to wonder what it was all for. As an expression of their feelings, fine, but the more surreal aspects take away from the naturalism of the work, and a more static, realistic environment would have suited the play better. I begin to feel that the characters became conduits only for the script, and I lost empathy for them. Again, this is to take nothing away from the tight direction by Katie Posner, and the play has many aspects that work.