Strategic Love Play
Paines Plough, Soho Theatre and Belgrade Theatre, in association with Landmark Theatres
Miriam Battye's Strategic Love Play (a hit at 2023's Edinburgh Fringe) is a cutting and clever look at the absurdities of dating apps and the awkwardness of navigating a first meeting with a complete stranger who might yet be a potential romantic partner. But it also seems to go beyond 21st century hang-ups and ends up saying something universal about the sexes.
Archie Backhouse is "Man"; Letty Thomas "Woman". They meet for a date in a pub. Things quickly become strange. Backhouse is casual and aloof from the outset—mainly trying to avoid being labelled a "dickhead"—but Letty Thomas's Woman shows up clamouring, from the very first interaction, to skip straight from the courtship to arguing about damp and bin collections. All she wants is stability.
This makes her date squirm throughout and evade anything that might reveal his true nature or vulnerabilities. She is determined to get him to confess his lack of attraction to her, but the power dynamic repeatedly shifts and somehow one pint becomes two. The dialogue given to "Woman" is often hysterical—at one point, she bemoans the fact that the men who like her are usually old "and in Greece".
The play is not naturalistic at all and is all the better for it—at times it reminded me of the Spanish surrealist filmmaker’s Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel, a 1962 movie in which the guests at a party find it mysteriously impossible to leave. Backhouse and Thomas have a genuine chemistry and impeccable comic timing.
The author has writing credits on the misanthropic hit show Succession, which is not surprising given the acidic one-liners that flow from "Woman" and the embarrassment oozing from "Man". There is potential for banality in the premise, but some subtle lighting cues and shifts in the power dynamic between him and her make for a surprising and sometimes moving 70 minutes.
Reviewer: Tim Fox