Strategic Love Play offers a tragic and often hilarious mirror to the fears and hopes of the vast majority of us who harbour a fear of dying alone. Immersed in a seemingly disastrous first date, we watch the excruciating awkwardness and hilarity unfold in real time. After hope for a second date evaporates, the characters begin a conversation of astonishing frankness to ask the questions most of us have secretly yearned to pose. In a world where being single often equates to being incomplete, they grapple with the anxiety of not measuring up to expectations and the constant concern of their friends. What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with you, really? When can I finally relax from this exhausting charade? Strategic Love Play is a compelling character study that delves into the societal pressures that drive individuals to conform and compromise in their quest for romantic acceptance.
Who among us doesn't in some way yearn to be proven
The acting in this production is truly exceptional. In this chemistry-filled two-hander, Letty Thomas portrays 'Her’ and Archie Backhouse is 'Him' - thankfully, they use real names within the play to avoid pretentiousness. Both characters exude authenticity, making the awkwardness of a bad first date feel all too real. She's eccentric, he's conventional; she's witty, he often misses the joke; he vaguely works for the NHS, and never asks about the subject of her profession. The performances are steeped in a naturalism that is instantly recognisable and hilarious, while transitioning seamlessly to the emotional depths we later uncover. Laughter ripples through the audience as we nod in recognition of the nuances portrayed on stage, with an occasional lone laugh hinting of a relatable moment only they have experienced.
This authenticity is masterfully crafted through the direction of Katie Posner, distinguished by incredible attention-to-detail. The subtle shifts in the characters' movements are particularly impressive, reflecting their emotional states and evolving connection. Fidgeting becomes a symbolic dance of power dynamics, the practise transferring between them as their interaction unfolds. Backhouse's furtive glances around the room are painfully transparent in his quest for escape. Gradually, as honesty replaces artifice, pints are drained and inhibitions discarded, even the stage itself undergoes a transformation, with the chairs expanding outward to symbolise their newfound emotional openness. Posner's exceptional character work is executed flawlessly by Backhouse and Thomas.
The set design, crafted by Rhys Jarman, adds dynamism to the production. Deceptively simple, it consists of a circular raised stage with a table and two chairs, surrounded by the audience on all sides. The characters periodically rotate the stage, an unexpected and delightful surprise that signals shifts in tone or pace. This innovative design ensures that no viewer is left out, even those initially seated in less desirable locations, as the perspective changes with each rotation. Stylistically, this device introduces an element of surrealism into an otherwise realistic play. It is reminiscent of a romantic comedy, the camera spinning around a couple locked in a passionate kiss, while subverting this ‘head-over-heels’ trope with two people arguing.
The lighting design, created by Rajiv Pattani, responds with precision to the character dynamics on stage. The widening or narrowing circle of light around the couple mirrors the ebb and flow of intimacy versus distance, and openness versus guardedness, heightening the emotional immersion of our experience. The fantastic fusion of direction and design ensure that, despite the potential dangers of a stationary setting, the production remains consistently dynamic and engaging.
The play's conclusion is bound to spark spirited discussions among audiences. Ironically, despite the play's recurring emphasis on the word "relax”, I found myself settling into the comfort of a conventional romantic narrative as the performance reached its conclusion. Like countless stories before it, adversity seemed to transform into connection, and opposites appeared to attract. Had these characters finally found what they'd been seeking? Without revealing too much, the play artfully defies convention, challenging the necessity and dynamics of that fundamental quest. My initial surprise only underscores its point.
Strategic Love Play is an emotional slow burn that encourages healthy introspection about the intricate web of societal pressures, the pursuit of love, and the compromises people make along the way. As I left the theatre, a sense of contemplation and melancholy lingered as I watched singles, duos and groups walk by. Illogical as it is, who among us doesn't in some way yearn to be proven "beloved and good" through romantic validation or fear a death in solitude sixty years down the line? I wholeheartedly recommend this play to anyone who finds even a hint of relatability in these themes - its resonance and relevance are undeniable.