Pros: A well-considered, witty and sharp play, deftly staged, with likeable and believable characters you’ll be rooting for.
Cons: Some overly explanatory lines sound more like monologues for a historical documentary. Also, people in the front row may experience some claustrophobia.
Meet Stephanie and Dennis. Their contrasting personalities and circumstances make them a seemingly typical rom-com ‘odd couple’: she’s a chatty and feisty lorry driver who is prone to malapropisms; he’s a privately-educated quiet type in a three-piece suit who works for his father’s company. She’s had a single sexual partner, whereas he’s had… er, a lot more than that.
But this play is set in 1929, and the couple haven’t met by chance – he’s been sent to her flat in an arrangement with the mysterious Dr Trollope, because 32-year-old war widow Stephanie (Claire Lams) wants a baby, which Dennis (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) can hopefully assist with – hence the entire play being set in her bedroom. You’ll quickly realise Kiss Me is full of innuendo, heart, and classic British awkwardness – perhaps unsurprising, given the pedigree of writer Richard Bean (the prolific playwright best known for One Man, Two Guvnors). No wonder its 2016 run, at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, was a sell-out.
Dennis’ reasons for volunteering are complex, as are Stephanie’s reactions and fluctuating emotions, so brilliantly captured by Lams, who looks like a young Helen Mirren. The ensuing drama is a world away from the unseen Dr Trollope’s straightforward transaction plan.
By 1929 the war had been over for more than a decade, and Spanish Flu was no longer raging, but men were still depleted. Eight years earlier, newspapers from London to Los Angeles claimed Britain had two million ‘surplus women’ earmarked for spinsterhood. Neither Stephanie’s predicament nor her solution to start a family alone seem farfetched, though some of her lines are over-explanatory. There are plenty of unanswered questions about how she’d raise and support a child – her suggestions seem vague at best – and whether any of her friends and colleagues might have faced similar dilemmas, but Stephanie’s steely determination makes you feel certain she’d do a good job. Lloyd-Hughes, with his ruddy cheeks and tousled posh-boy hair, is well cast as her potential saviour.
The play gives some interesting detail on the women whose husbands are still alive but unable to give them children, either due to shell shock or war-related injuries. Anyone who watched in disbelief as Downton Abbey character Cousin Matthew miraculously walked again, and subsequently had a child, despite his supposed paralysis from a battlefield injury, won’t endure such convenient plot twists here.
On Georgia Lowe’s set, the back wall is covered in angled mirrored panels, meaning you see the actors from different angles, and in multiples. This amplifies the drama, though it’s unnerving for those in the centre of the front row, who not only see themselves constantly, but are sat about a metre from the end of the bed. The play is fascinating and intimate, but being this close won’t appeal to everyone.
Bean isn’t afraid to hint at the awkwardness, coupled with the cold logistics, of Dennis’ most difficult assignments, found in his anecdotes but also in the play’s title. Dennis tells Stephanie they are not allowed to kiss properly because they might fall in love. She counters that this is illogical, reasoning that the actual process is much more intimate than kissing.
With their eventual encounter covering everything from marital manuals to Catholic guilt and even Freud, Bean has successfully highlighted the contrasts between straight-laced public appearances versus desire, graphic war wounds and losses versus stiff upper lips, and outdated values versus the modern world. This is an incredibly intelligent play, weighted in historical fact, but it’s full of life, too; it tugs on your heartstrings and certainly makes you laugh.
Author: Richard Bean
Director: Anna Ledwich
Producer: Mark Cartwright
Box Office: 0844 871 7632
Booking Link: http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/kiss-me/trafalgar-studios
Booking Until: 8 July 2017