“Love, Love, Love” by Mike Bartlett

at the Royal Court, Wednesday 2nd May 2012

*The performance reviewed was a last preview*

It’s hardly a new observation that there is a struggle between the generations, but it’s such a rich subject for debate that Mike Bartlett just can’t leave it alone; all three plays of his I’ve seen have ruminated on this discussion, and for me they never get boring. It’s easy to see where the scope came from for Earthquakes in London and 13, for in Love, Love, Love (originally produced in 2010 and now revived at the Royal Court), Bartlett prefigures his broad, multi-voiced work with a biting look at how this fight has overwhelmed and dictated family life. Though the somewhat pessimistic ending is a little bewildering, we are beforehand treated to a wickedly funny and searing exploration of this oft-visited theme.

Split into three acts, which occur in 1967, 1990 and 2011 respectively, the play charts the course of the relationship between Kenneth and Sandra, who fall in love during a time of ‘change’ before managing to ruin the lives of their children through pure selfishness and greed (though if you’re all grown up you may view this argument differently). The most interesting act is the second, which portrays Kenneth and Sandra in middle-age with teenage children Rose and Jamie who seem to be chastised for having the exact same desires and worries their parents had at their age.

Bartlett’s dialogue is extraordinary, mimicking the rhythms and cadences of everyday speech whilst allowing room for theatrical speculation (“All families are boring. That’s why London was invented. So you can move away”). He manages to have us in stitches one moment before flipping instantaneously to leave us floored with emotion. Tom Gibbons’ sound design supports these shifts wholeheartedly, pumping music through the auditorium so we’re in no doubt about the sentiment being channelled and Lucy Osborne’s three different sets slowly open and brighten up, whilst the tone becomes ever-more oppressive.

Under James Grieve’s direction, the five-strong cast gives stunning performances. Victoria Hamilton and Ben Miles as Sandra and Kenneth manage the impressive feat of convincingly pulling off portrayals as nineteen, forty-two and sixty-three year-olds in one night, keeping high levels of emotion throughout. We love them and hate them, want to be them and want to hit them, and as much as their arguments are debatable, their conviction is utterly faultless. George Rainsford’s Jamie is dim but charming, Claire Foy as Rose gives a strong-willed, headstrong voicing of the audience’s frustrations and Sam Troughton as Kenneth’s brother Henry is subtly hilarious, managing to throw a spanner in the works of the clear-cut generation divide, our only misgiving being that he is not on stage more frequently.

What’s most remarkable about Love, Love, Love is the way Bartlett manages to voice the concerns of both the younger and older generations without being partisan, meaning we are constantly questioning who to blame and our own positions on the matter. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to voice my protest in a theatre so much as during Sandra’s Act Three speech, which writes the young generation off as people who “don’t read… don’t work and … don’t think”, though the brilliance of Bartlett’s writing is that there are surely moments when older generations in the audience wish to do the same during Rose’s rants. Unfortunately, the choice to have Rose pursue a career as a musician means the debate loses a little of its universality, and Bartlett doesn’t offer any kind of solution for the ending is far too cynical for a play which seems to be working its way towards a satisfying climax. Then again, maybe that’s the point; depressingly, no matter what we try and how much things change, the animosity between the young and the old is perpetual.

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