Since moving North and West (just to W9, you understand, not Liverpool) we’ve been less frequent visitors to the Royal Court than in the old South West days. So it was a welcome return to this, surely the best of London theatres, last Friday. Not only can you get a proper pint, a proper glass of wine and a proper bite to eat, but you can also get a proper portion of Mike Bartlett: you know, good old plays about people, not all this apocalyptic rubbish he writes for the National, and which is only occasionally saved by Rupert Goold.
Love Love Love is not really a new play (it toured the provinces in 2010 apparently) but it’s new to London and this is a new production. (Before you all hound me out of town again I should note that this was a preview).
The device behind this play is to drop in on one couple at twenty year intervals: so act one takes place in the late 60s (some time between floral carpets and the Beatles last LP); the second in the suburban late 80s; and the third in the comfortable present day-ish.
This requires some heroics on behalf of the cast, particularly principal protagonists Sandra and Kenneth (Victoria Hamilton and Ben Miles), who are called upon to portray themselves as teenagers, harried parents to teenagers and pensioners. They manage it with relative conviction (although they are most comfortable in the middle role, the one closest to their actual ages) but Claire Foy playing their daughter Rosie makes an extremely youthful 37 year old.
This play follows really quite a conventional format: it routinely plots the story arc of one couple’s love from highly-charged first meeting, through to stressful parenthood and eventual relaxed old age; it even has a neat soppy, happy ending. Love, conflict, resolution: it’s like Aristole.
This is overlaid with some (hardly revelatory) social commentary: young people in the 60s were idealistic; living in suburban Reading with kids is unexciting; the children of today’s retirees have it tougher than their parents.
So far, so ordinary, so David Nicholls.
But what makes Love Love Love more interesting is just how awful the couple at the centre of this story arc are. This is a genuine love story; they undeniably love each other passionately, but rather than making them appealing this love and passion makes them deeply unattractive as they mistreat everyone around them.
In the first act, the victim is Kenneth’s brother who is betrayed by both with barely a second thought. In the second and third acts, it is their children who are casually condemned to imperfect and unhappy lives by their parents’ pursuit of their version of love.
This play can be seen in se ways as a paean for reason and warning against passion. It is their love which allows Sandra and Ken to behave so appallingly to everyone around them, and even each other. It is the pursuit of passion that leaves their daughter Rosie without a career or relationship. It is their son’s (Jamie Rainsford) inability to forego simple pleasures for more tedious necessities that leaves him unable to function in the world.
The title is borrowed from a lyric in the Beatles All You Need Is Love, but the play itself feels like a riposte to that sentiment. Love is not all you need. You need compassion and sensitivity and self-awareness and self control and generosity – all of which Bartlett’s protagonists lack.