Sam Steiner’s short, ingenious script, written while he was still an undergraduate at Warwick in the style of Nick Payne’s play Constellations, was a smash hit at the 2015 and 2016 Edinburgh Fringes: it concentrates on Bernadette and Oli’s touching, imperfect love story while also exploring the political and social repercussions of a soon to be and subsequently passed Hush Law. Distinctly Orwellian, the script references himself, yet with a sharply modern feel, the work is indeed very Big Brother as it watches its young couple attempt to cope practically and emotionally with the language restriction, the audience being “in the round” heightening this sense of nowhere to hide.
Bernadette, played by Marilyn White and Oli (Holly Machlachlin) meet in a pet cemetery. Some months later, the couple’s relationship is hit by the introduction of a new Hush Law, a proposal that people can only speak 140 words per day.
The play’s success hinges on the actors’ chemistry, and both ladies are very natural and convincing together; the original play had a male/female actor pairing but the double female concept works incredibly well. The gulf between them drives the play, opposites in many ways politically and socially, a gap they struggle to fill with the right words despite knowing they are right for each other. Tactile and totally at ease, unison in the scene changing choreography (oh to be able to get up from the floor in a single deft movement) that was totally acceptable amongst expertly used minimal props, a claustrophobic yet compelling atmosphere was achieved in a tight 90 minutes. There was total belief in the relationship, the words expertly driven and emoted: the scene where the amount of words “left” was first discussed was quite magnetic, with just a perfect whiff of intimated jealousy and defensiveness from each side; you felt the relationship was on the precipice and it could have gone either way.
This original, clever, heartfelt, politically engaged work, from the non-chronological timeline that jumps between pre and post Hush Law, and the scenes where Bernadette and Oli stumble through coping when the law passes indicating via spoken numbers the amount of words left for them to speak, from them spending all their words on a well known American TV Theme tune to Bernadette’s outburst of random words that gives the play its name (“Octopus! Shanghai! Aliens! Terrorism! Lemons, lemons, lemons, lemons, lemons!”) is pacey and leaves the audience aching for a happy ending.
In other ways, however, the script falls a little short in the sense that the focus is on the couple rather than the political background of the Hush Law; I found myself asking how/why the law developed and how it could then be enforced, which detracted from the real message of the piece which is more to do with what is not said. Any means to comply or consequences of not obeying the law were overtly absent. The ladies’ attempts at Morse Code to get around it were particularly well done, the direction never lacking in visual concept throughout with, actually, Mary Stone’s clear passion about the work shining through. The use of lighting indicating the changes of scene was very slick (the television scene particularly…you actually believed they were watching the TV); the added soundtrack of nature sounds to the “before” and the silence combined with prison cell like lighting as “after” were excellent touches.
Overall, an intensely thought provoking play, directed and carried off with style and warmth by two very charismatic and talented actors: a must-see if you have any interest in language, something a little different, edgy and anti-establishment, or if you just can’t resist a love story.