Strawberries in January

Four people with a few more mutual friends than they might expect trip round one another in Strawberries in January, a play that mixes and matches the tropes of romantic comedies with a knowing wink. Francois, a would-be screenwriter, finds himself trying every possible Facebook relationship status with Sophie, a former flatmate, only for none of them to fit. Robert, a professor, keeps dropping round to hear stories, while Lea writes letters she never sends. The play is at times too sugar sweet, and the dialogue has more spark than the plot, but there’s usually a wry undercurrent to the action, a nod to the unlikely decisions and twists that power the rom com genre.

The storytelling scenes work well, and the blocking has clearly been worked over with a fine tooth comb.

Unfortunately, Gone Rogue Productions have made the surprising choice to play it dead straight, completely missing or ignoring the further levels of the drama. The aim is clearly for realism, which suits neither the plot nor the dialogue – Robert’s profession gives us lines about reality in fiction, but there’s no sense, as there should be, that these are reflections on the play itself.Often the sought-for realism is well achieved, it must be said – Will Hankey as Francois is an excellent melancholy drunk – but it remains a fundamental misdirection.

The dialogue is tricky, veering between the mundane, abstract and witty frequently, but the choice to deliver most of it at high speed with little change in intonation is not the answer. Jokes are buried under throwaway deliveries and a matter of fact tone is employed for almost every line, from the poetic to the pointed.

In terms of character, there doesn’t seem to have been enough work done to determine why these four make the frankly odd choices they do. Hankey has a tendency to hunch over his best lines and struggles at making his character, who is by turns bitter and doting, likeable enough to carry the romance. Sophie falls victim to the script, which has a tendency to describe rather than show her character, and Caitlin Hobbs struggles to make much of her. Liam Dyer’s Robert is less a professor than a bored postgrad, and certainly doesn’t convey a charismatic man in middle age. Fortunately, Joanna Mills makes a star turn as Lea, delivering monologues that have clearly been thought through with sensitivity and wit.

There are some fine staging decisions. The storytelling scenes work well, and the blocking has clearly been worked over with a fine tooth comb. The commitment to realism prevents anything too exciting happening on stage, but it’s clear the cast are capable of putting sizeable effort into some aspects of their performances.

Overall, there seems to have been little consideration of what kind of play Strawberries in January is. It has some nigh unbelievable twists (the original French version was written in 1999, and the existence of Facebook would blow vast holes in the plot) that deliberately force one to think about genre and reality. It makes little sense not to acknowledge this. Stubbornly ploughing on with realism means the incongruities pile up, unrecognised, until the conclusion proves so unrealistic it practically rips a hole in space/time. All it needed was a wink, but it seems the play is cleverer than the company. 

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The Blurb

François can't quite decide if he's a hopeless romantic or just plain hopeless. Whilst working in a coffee shop, a chance encounter leads him to setting up Professor Robert with his ex-girlfriend, Sophie. Meanwhile, Lea is back in town, determined to hunt down her childhood pen pal – but ends up finding a few more familiar faces than she bargained for. A sharp romantic comedy about finding love where you least expect it. 'Instantly engaging' **** (ThreeWeeks). 'Commendable' **** (