Having starred in some of Britain’s biggest TV shows, the pair are taking to the stage for Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, a minimalist two-hander where words are strictly rationed. And they can’t stop talking about it
This is it,” Aidan Turner says, swooping his hand across the large and largely empty rehearsal room. “No props, no furniture. Nothing to hide behind.” Sliding into a seat across the table from him, Jenna Coleman replies mischievously: “Unless I hide behind you.”
The pair are soon to perform in Sam Steiner’s tender two-hander, Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, a play that has worked its way up from the fringe to the West End. “The main thing I’ve heard about the original,” Coleman says conspiratorially, leaning forwards on her elbows, “was that they had great chemistry.”
“Ah,” Turner sighs, hands thrown in the air, grin wide across his face, “so we’re doomed.”
Lemons is a kaleidoscopic exploration of a relationship. Oliver and Bernadette are a musician and a lawyer who meet in a London pet cemetery and tumble easily in love. “They have really different energies,” Coleman says. “Oliver’s poetic and passionate, and she’s more pragmatic and measured.” The relationship becomes strained when a new piece of legislation is introduced. Known as the “hush law”, it decrees that everyone in the country is limited to speaking 140 words a day. Once you’ve used up your allowance, you physically can’t say any more.
The law radically changes the way Oliver and Bernadette live and communicate, and fissures in their relationship start to show. They come home each day with a different number of words saved for each other. “One hundred three,” Oliver offers, after having stored them all up for her. “Seven,” Bernadette says, not having done the same. Their dialogue becomes increasingly fractured as they try to squeeze everything they want to say into as few words as possible, and rely on gesture, even an attempt at learning morse code.
Three weeks into rehearsals, the laughter between the two actors is quick and easy. More familiar with larger casts, Turner describes the experience as a uniquely “intimate creative endeavour”. Having cut his teeth at Dublin’s Abbey theatre, he rose to fame as the much fawned-over Cornish protagonist in Poldark, and recently appeared as a chilling clinical psychologist in ITV’s grisly thriller The Suspect. Starting out with scene-stealing roles in Emmerdale, Coleman later played Clara, beloved companion to Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi’s iterations of the Doctor in Doctor Who. She most recently played an occult explorer in Netflix’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy The Sandman. They are two of Britain and Ireland’s biggest TV stars of the past decade, but joking around in the rehearsal room, they seem like old friends, entirely void of the uptightness of fame.
A lighter story compared with their most recent TV appearances, Lemons marks the first time the two have performed together, although they had encountered each other a handful of times before. “My grandma met you at Wimbledon,” Coleman reminds Turner. “We got sat together for sandwiches between sets. My grandma was like: ‘Look at his hair!’ I think she went to touch it.” Coleman slaps an imaginary wrist away. “‘You can’t touch Aidan’s hair!’” They appear relaxed and comfortable, chatting breezily before we dive into any actual questions. When Coleman lists the reasons why she said yes to taking the part, she finishes with, “ … and Aidan”. He nods smugly and she rolls her eyes.
It’s so interesting what this does to your physicality. Without freedom of expression, it changes a bit of who you are
Directed by Josie Rourke, the former artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse and director of the Bafta and Oscar-nominated Mary Queen of Scots, Lemons will run at the Harold Pinter theatre before going to Manchester and Brighton. The production will be sparse and simple: just the two actors and their limited word count. “When you read a script now,” says Turner, “it’s so easy for your first thought to be: ‘This would be a great six-parter on Netflix.’ You’re already trying to evolve it. But when I read Lemons, I knew this was fundamentally theatre. That’s what it exists for.”
Coleman describes Lemons as a sudoku of a play; she was drawn to the challenge of trying to solve it. Jumping back and forth in time, before and after the hush law, Lemons is made up of 102 different fragments. “This is our ellipsis,” Coleman says, leaning over the back of her chair to point to a large oval of dozens of coloured cards on the floor, the only indication in the room of any kind of stage. “This is how we began.”
The cards are arranged in a rainbow ring, scrawled with numbers and words. “These are the scenes unfolded in chronological order,” she explains. They’ve colour-coded them so that the tones correspond to the health of Oliver and Bernadette’s relationship. “Lovely lilac is dating, blossoming blue is their beginning.” Coleman points further round the ring. “That’s yikes yellow.” What about the stickers? “It’s when things are present,” she says, “or when we’re choosing to not talk about something.” Namely, Oliver’s ex and the question of babies. “You’re having a conversation but really the scene is about something else.” While the political ramifications of the hush law are unique, much of the way it affects their lives may feel familiar. “It’s so reflective of so many people’s relationships,” Coleman says.
The show, which Coleman describes as “full of humanity and love”, began its life as a collaboration between students and alumni of the University of Warwick. After becoming the talk of 2015’s National Student drama festival, and selling out at three consecutive Edinburgh fringes, the script has gone on to be studied on postgraduate courses and performed in more than a dozen languages around the world.
“I just love their relationship,” Turner says, “and it still really makes me laugh.”
Coleman shakes her head. “There’s a falafel joke that gets Aidan every time.”
Through the lens of Oliver and Bernadette’s partnership, Lemons considers the worth of every word. “We’ve done exercises where we count the words as we say them,” Coleman says, “and it’s so interesting what it does to your physicality. Without freedom of expression, it changes a bit of who you are.”
With Rourke, they’ve played around with the idea of spending your words as if each one is a coin, and holding an armful of props that you drop with every word, so that you feel the impact of each one disappearing. “When you’re literally holding the thing as it diminishes,” Turner says, “it makes you value language in a different way.”
Raising questions of censorship and privilege, the script feels prescient. “It has a slightly dystopian feel that mirrors the lockdown period,” Turner says.
“Both make you ask similar questions,” Coleman suggests. “‘Are we in this suspense for ever? Is this the world now?’” In the play, the couple hold off certain topics of conversation – again, Oliver’s ex and the question of babies – to when they expect the hush law to be lifted, gradually realising that it might never be removed. Running alongside the politics is the uncertainty of whether their relationship will survive long enough to see the end result.
Over the course of the play, the couple develop a private language – “a shorthand”, Coleman says – and this is something the two actors have developed quickly in the intensity of the rehearsal room.
“You do catch yourself thinking: ‘If anyone overheard what we’re talking about,’” Turner laughs, “‘it would sound ridiculous.’” They’ll often speak in half words and gestures, and immediately get what the other means. “The more relationships develop, the more you just feel from somebody’s tone of voice what they need,” Turner says. “It’s not always about how much you need to talk or the words that come out. You become more in tune with each other.”
As two of the most sought-after performers around, they have their pick of future projects. But neither seems to take that for granted. “Do you know what you’re doing?” Coleman asks Turner. “I don’t know what I’m doing!” He shakes his head emphatically. “I think that’s why we’re sitting here, doing a play called Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons. It’s scary and challenging and terrifying, but when it’s great, it feels brilliant.” He beams, bright and earnest. “I don’t think I ever want to get to the position where I feel like I know what I’m doing. If you do, I think, as a creative person, you’re in trouble. You want to keep feeling scared.”
Towards the end of the play, Steiner writes a scene that allows the actors a moment of wild relief. Amid growing tension, a whole day’s words are gleefully thrown away with a song. The intention is for each production to choose a different song, so what’s it to be? “No way!” shouts Turner, waving his arms excitedly. “No way am I telling!” They spent an entire day auditioning songs, Coleman reveals, like an extremely intense round of karaoke.
“I have a very limited vocal range,” Turner admits, “but Jenna’s got a great voice. If the range is here” – he stretches out his arms – “I can do this bit.” His hands come in, a few centimetres apart. “The idea behind the song is that they haven’t sung out loud in so long, so they just enjoy shouting and screaming for a minute before they run out. We need to find the right tone for that.”
Coleman nods sagely, and pauses for a moment: “It’s Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat.” She grins.
“Damn it,” yells Turner. Coleman starts humming “red and yellow and green” at him, before they both give up on words and surrender to infectious laughter.
Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, to 18 March; Manchester Opera House, 21 to 25 March; and Theatre Royal, Brighton, 28 March to 1 April.