Pleasance Courtyard – Beneath
Bitter Lemons portrays the lives of two women, a footballer who is referred to as A (Chanel Waddock) and a banker, B (Shannon Hayes). Both have important career assessments coming up and need to perform at their best. The two women do not know each other but are linked through poetic and smartly-crafted prose.
Both characters become unexpectedly pregnant and decide on a termination. Their decision stands firm, in contrast to the often indecisive portrayals of abortion choices seen in theatre. Woman A books an appointment soon after she finds out, whereas women B struggles to tell the clinic that she wants an abortion – the specific word the doctor needs to hear. The play delves into explicit descriptions of the process and the after-care, comparing the pieces that exit the body post-procedure to chunks of lemons. This unsettling image persists throughout the play, establishing connections to both the play’s title and the proverbial phrase ‘when life gives you lemons’. The way the commonly-considered taboo subject is approached in the play is refreshing to see and normalises open, honest discussions surrounding abortion.
The monologues are delivered in the second person, and the use of ‘you’ connects the audience to the characters. Writer Lucy Hayes skilfully intertwines the two narratives throughout the story. Moreover, words are intricately woven together, carrying unique meanings for each character, yet still linking them. For instance, woman A has an assessment on a football pitch; it is being decided whether she will take over as first choice goalkeeper. Woman B is preparing for an important pitch at the bank that she works for; if the meeting is a success, she’ll get the promotion she desires.
The stage is set up with white lines all across the floor, creating a grid-like appearance where the characters move around like chess pieces on a chess board. The banker wears different suits – as she comically remarks, ‘power suits, in a cool way’ – and the footballer wears team kits. They pull out their costumes from boxes that are onstage. These boxes also serve as props (for instance two goal posts), which they move around and occasionally sit on during their more conversational lines.
Through these less-formal moments in woman B’s monologue, we learn of another banker, Gary, who is probably the most infuriating character at the Fringe. Gary constantly berates woman B and passive-aggressively demands she gets him coffee. The audience soon discover that this subversion goes deeper. Gary even goes as far as interrupting B’s presentation during the important pitch. Having faced sexism and discrimination, woman B reaches a breaking point, and Hayes portrays this expertly.
In the final moments of the play, both women meet. There is an inference that they share the same father and are half-sisters, but this twist is unnecessary. Nevertheless, the plot unfolds smoothly, and the storytelling is brilliantly done.
Bitter Lemons is a powerful piece of theatre that opens up dialogues about women’s autonomy over their own bodies. It doesn’t shy away from the reality of having an abortion, and by doing so tackles taboo. This aspect is emphasised by the utilisation of nameless characters, symbolising the countless number of women who go through similar experiences of abortion. Hayes and Waddock approach their characters’ stories with careful consideration, delivering believable and compassionate performances.
Written and directed by: Lucy Hayes
Produced by: RJG Productions, in association with Pleasance & Bristol Old Vic
Bitter Lemons has finished its run at the Edinburgh Fringe. It next plays at The Weston Studio, Bristol Old Vic from 5 9 September. Further information and bookings can be found here.