Love Lab – Tristan Bates Theatre, London

Writer: Sam Coulson

Director: Sean Aydon

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Modern dating can be a soulless business; online platforms mean we can dismiss a hundred potential partners with just a click or a swipe. Just getting to a first date is based almost entirely on looks, ability to write a humorous profile and a social media check of their dating past. Sam Coulson’s Love Lab asks whether a true connection can really exist anymore and whether it can be constructed.

Livia and Perry wake up in a strange room with just each other for company. Surrounded by cameras and ordered around by a disembodied voice, they soon realise they have been entered into the Love Lab, the latest reality dating show that puts two supposedly compatible strangers in a sealed room together for a week in the hope that love will blossom. With little in common, the central pair are certain the show has made a mistake and as their personal lives and fears are laid bare, tensions escalate.

Coulson’s 45-minute play is based on a 1967 academic experiment which used 36 questions to make two strangers fall in love. In transposing this idea to a Big Brother meets Black Mirrorscenario, Coulson examines both the pressures and dangers of our more open form of dating, where social media becomes a stalking tool for potential partners, and Love Lab asks useful questions about the development of trust and loyalty between people who barely know each other.

Coulson mixes direct, often frustrated, conversation between the couple as they struggle to pass the time and find out more about each other, with the increasingly intrusive voice of Lucy who harasses Livia and Perry with demanding questions about themselves and their beliefs. What begins as a fun psychology test asking about ideal dinner guests and favourite memories, soon becomes more sinister as Lucy takes on a personality of her own, probing and challenging the characters with painful revelations.

Director Sean Aydon is very accomplished in managing the growing tension, drawing out a feeling of claustrophobia and, as the days pass, a relentlessness about the unhealthy focus on compatibility. An early montage scene well conveys the awkward silences and frustration, while a couple of late twists add a high-stakes element that is a useful way to force a conclusion, taking the show in an unexpected direction.

Yet, the outcome of too many of the scenes is anger, an outburst of some kind against the TV show and the hostage-like captivity it creates. Equally, the characters feel imbalanced, and while Perry is engaging and often funny, Livia’s coldness is hard to like and her overall motivation difficult to understand – is she looking for TV fame or real love? It is a short piece, but more opportunity to discover the characters would strengthen Coulson’s point about the emptiness of modern dating, that an individual is far more complex than a profile picture may suggest, and that trust has to be earned over time.

Everyman Perry, played by Michael Rivers, very quickly wins over the audience with his love of tea and belief in old-fashioned dating. Rivers plays Perry’s increasing anxiety well with some red-lit nightmare sequences offering an unsettling insight into his fears. Harriet Barrow’s Livia is in some ways more-worldly but also more distant, never quite able to reconcile the obsession with the TV show and her lack of general knowledge about famous explorers, with the aloof experience and intelligence that Barrow projects. There is also an interesting dynamic with Caitlin Thorbury’s Lucy that could be further drawn out, with a possible jealousy angle that could add an interesting dimension.

Love Lab makes a genuinely insightful point about the human abuse of technology – that it’s not the platforms themselves that inherently at fault, but the people who use them badly – and this is one of the show’s core messages. Livia remarks that it is difficult for people to change when every misdemeanour is recorded online forever, demeaning the present. Coulson’s play is a warning that the creation of false worlds will leave us all lonelier than ever.

Runs Until 18 August 2018 | Image: 

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