Charles Blake reviews Kiss Me at Trafalgar Studios
After his international hit One Man Two Guvnors, this perhaps isn’t the play one would expect from writer Richard Bean. Set in 1920s London, Kiss Me may be amusing, but it is certainly not a comedy. Rather, it is intimate duet of a play, centring on a tragic relationship unfolding in what was left of British society after the First World War. A lonely widow, desperate for a child, meets up with a mysterious, well-dressed stranger, offering to conceive one with her. But what was intended to be merely a transaction, born out of necessity, unfolds into something far more complex indeed.
The man and the woman begin the play nameless. A doctor, who has been mediating this service for the two of them, and for many others, has set up their rendezvous. There are strict parameters for this arrangement: the man is in control of the situation, the act is intimate, for it must be by necessity, but it is certainly not to be romantic. And as such, there is to be no kissing on the mouth. The neck will suffice. It all sounds very simple, businesslike. But in reality, as the title of the play suggests, it is anything but.
The postwar setting here is far from incidental. It permeates every moment of the play, and we feel its weight heavy in the air, despite the action never leaving the woman’s bedroom. The war, its suffering and its aftermath, are at the heart of the pain which drives the play, and everything leads back to it. The conservatism of the times also bears down upon the two of them, who are leading down a path which, if all goes as intended, will ostracise the woman from society as an immoral single female, bearing the child of an unknown father. But for her, a widow approaching middle-age, yearning for motherhood, what is the alternative? In a country where a generation of young men went overseas to die, who is left to give her what she craves?
Kiss Me is certainly a play about an era, but it is also very much a character study. For seventy-five minutes we have only the two of them on stage, and really the journey of the play is the unfolding of their respective characters and histories. Because the dynamic of the scene—the two of them, alone in the bedroom—is unchanged throughout, we are drawn deeply into their world, getting to know each of them intimately.
This is perhaps a play that only really works with a pair of very strong performers, and it is a testament to the ability of actors Claire Lams and Ben Lloyd-Hughes that this production is so good. Lloyd-Hughes’s character keeps his cards close to his chest, but as the play progresses and he slowly becomes more open, we see the various layers of his personality unfold. The subtlety and meticulousness with which his character is constructed is one of the reasons the play is so fascinating. Lams’ character is more straightforward in a sense, for her initial motivations are obvious. But it’s the conflicts of her predicament, and the emotional turmoil this precipitates, that bring her character to life and make her pain our own. Lams’ authenticity in playing the part makes this all possible, in a performance which seems to hit every note perfectly.
My only criticism of the whole play is that the emotional intensity of the climax doesn’t quite do justice to what has preceded it. But indeed, this is a minor criticism, and others will no doubt feel differently. Regardless, this small and intense drama is undoubtedly an excellent piece, and few, I suspect, would fail to be moved by it.
Kiss Me runs at Trafalgar Studios until 8th July