The central characters in Bitter Lemons are both, in different ways, women in a men’s world. One is, topically, the goalkeeper of a football team finally promoted to the number one shirt after years waiting in the dugout as number two. And the other is struggling to avoid being considered the token diversity hire in a bank full of men that don’t value her. Both are heading for a crisis.
The former, played by Chanel Waddock, is something of a daddy’s girl and leans into stereotypically laddish behaviour, sleeping with baristas and struggling to remember their name when pressed. In contrast the latter, played by Shannon Hayes, raised by an almost single mum, behaves in a practically gender free manner at work, concealing her relationship with one of her work colleagues in order to keep things strictly business.
This is, if you’ll forgive me, a game of two halves. The two women don’t know and largely don’t address each other – the play mainly being two intercut monologues written in the second person – but their stories parallel and echo their partner, sometimes directly with repeated language, most notably and playfully with the way both of them are focused on a future pitch… but not the same kind of pitch both times.
Whilst the turning point they reach in unison at half-time is pretty explicitly covered in the show’s lightly but informative program note (all participants, in a pleasing move, helpfully pronouned), the blurb and brochure details largely only hint so I’ll avoid mentioning it in detail here. Suffice it to say it’s an area that could be triggering for some. However I don’t believe that means the play should be treated with wariness.
I’d been told in advance that this production was a hard watch, an impression somewhat bolstered by the use of the word ‘bitter’ in the title, but if anything it felt like it handled its difficult subject with an admirable lightness of touch. Dark content is at its best when leavened with humour, it warms us to the characters, helps us empathise with them so that when the worst happens our sympathies are automatically engaged. And that’s the case here, deft writing and performances leading us into painful areas with a masterful control of tone, proving that a play doesn’t have to wallow in misery to be worthwhile.
Because, of course, to define our central characters by the central event they both share is to miss the play’s point. These women are not defined by it, they are more than their own bodies and the key detail remains the way the world reacts around them, the pressure they feel to look for men’s approval… particularly when those are men who are entirely undeserving of their respect.
Despite the story being told in two largely discrete sections you’re never in any doubt that this is a single piece, our two actors (both excellent and affecting throughout) literally weaving around the other and playing off their opposite’s energy and physicality in a ballet reminiscent of the beautiful game itself. Director/writer Lucy Hayes’ masterful control of language unifies the whole, and the neat device of contrasting the second person inner monologue with amplified spoken dialogue really places us inside our protagonists’ heads.
A brief moment in extra time when a further connection between our characters hinted gently at across the previous hour is pushed a shade more explicitly and openly might feel lacking in subtlety, depending on whether you’ve picked it up already or not, but as criticisms of the writing go that’s a tiny quibble at best. It doesn’t detract from what is an excellent piece of theatre.
Written by Lucy Hayes
Directed by Lucy Hayes
Produced by RJG Productions, in association with Pleasance & Bristol Old Vic
Performed by Shannon Hayes & Chanel Waddock