DramaFeaturedReviewSouth West

Bitter Lemons – Bristol Old Vic

Reviewer: Joan Phillips

Writer: Lucy Hayes

Director: Sarah Malik & Lucy Hayes

Bitter Lemons is intense and dramatic theatre at its explosive best.

Two ambitious women A & B (Chanel Waddock and Shannon Hayes) tell the journey of their lives to the point when they both seem to be on the verge of enjoying the hard-won successes they have been dreaming of. Both have been supported by single mothers, with mostly absent fathers. One is a football goalkeeper on the point of being selected for a major match, the other an emerging successful junior banker with Nigerian heritage.

Both appear on stage simultaneously, but tell their stories separately. Relating their experiences in parallel, without interacting, the two deliver a sharply observed stream of consciousness about their state of mind and the decisions they face when they discover they are pregnant. Writer, Lucy Hayes, cleverly intertwines the two parallel stories with sharply delivered dialogue and swift interchanges but also well-chosen words. The ‘pitch’ on which the goalie’s career will be determined and the ‘pitch’ on which the banker’s promotion will be settled are frequently referenced.

A subject of taboo, it is at times an uncomfortable listen. Hayes refers to the developmental stages of the embryo, the drugs involved in abortion and the post effects – most dramatically experienced by the goalie as her body fails her at a crucial penalty. One woman has no relationship to the father, the other is badly let down by her boyfriend, neither wants to let down their mothers, or feel able to consult their colleagues or friends, so both endure their anguish completely isolated with no close support.

The audience is not expected to judge, only to observe and share the agony of the two women as they endure the emotional and physical journey of the pre and post-procedural impacts of their situation. Thrown into this are the societal pressures of women striving in a traditionally male-dominated world and one which their mothers don’t understand. The young banker even faces the daunting suggestion that her hard won-promotion came, not because of her ability, but due to diversity targets.

Despite the subject material and sometimes gruesome details Hayes still manages to inject humour into the evening – without having to spell out the off-side rule – and convey the two main characters’ likability with total compassion. Both actors deliver gripping performances. Hayes portrays the controlled, considered person that was the key to success in the corporate world. She expertly conveys the battles to keep control of her feelings as she endures the tokenism and sexism at work. Waddock, breaking through into a world traditionally dominated by the men’s game, expertly conveys the energy and sass that have enabled her to succeed in the physical world of football.

Roisin Martindale’s set makes use of a traditional checkerboard on the floor with sharp overhead, almost surgical, lights. The stripped-back nature of the set concentrates our attention on the two women’s stories and actions. As the stories reach their climax the lights flicker and a slight hint of static noise adds to the impact of their increasingly fraught situations. Lucy Hayes’ direction and writing deliver a well-crafted and intelligent insight into a much-overlooked subject.

Runs until 9 Sept 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Explosive theatre

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The Reviews Hub - South West

The Southwest team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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