Divisive has always been an adjective to describe Lunch, the short play written by Steven Berkoff. Since its debut in 1983, and in the array of interpretations since, audiences have reacted passionately to its sexually-charged story. Wanting to get those extreme reactions is part of the appeal for theatre-makers and so you can’t fault Pen and Paper Theatre Company for tackling it. The play takes place over the course of one hour, where two strangers meet and immediately enter into a compartmentalised relationship. He is a salesman, ready to say and do whatever it takes to get what he needs. She is a wife in a happy but perhaps stagnant relationship, trying to find enjoyment for life in other places.
As premises go Lunch has a pretty standard boy-meets-girl structure, but it’s Berkoff’s writing that makes the play so distinct. Its also, arguably, why the play is so divisive. The script flits back and forth tonally in a way that, at least in this production, is very jarring. Large portions of the dialogue seem to have been lifted from a Shakespearean tragedy, full of grand poetic gestures and metaphor, only to then turn into something more abrupt and naturalistic, then back again. Perhaps unnecessarily, the script asks a lot of its creative team and, despite their best efforts, that creative team falls just short.
The actors do an admirable job of making the script work and, individually, Nick Currie and Emma Stacey give two very different, but equally very strong, performances. The attention given to each character is plain to see and, especially in the case of Stacey’s Woman, director Jordan Forse deserves credit for his part in that. Stacey gives an understated portrayal, relying on body language to express the character’s suppression, all reined in nicely by Forse’s direction. He struggles to rein Currie in with the same aptitude, however. Currie’s Man is deliberately loud and obnoxious – almost perverse – and, at times, it works perfectly well. As the character grows increasingly aggressive, Currie’s grandiose performance strays into hamminess and loses some steam as a result. Unfortunately, while the actors are excellent individually, there isn’t enough chemistry between them. Part of that is deliberate, of course, and the absurdity of their predicament is referenced within the play itself. The attraction remains unconvincing though, and the relationship therefore far less consensual than it sets out to be.
I’d argue that choosing to stage Lunch may have been a mistake in the first place. For all its complexities, Berkoff’s play is outdated. His portrayal of relationships and gender politics isn’t current in the slightest, certainly antiquated for an audience in 2018. Whether it was a mistake or not, you can’t fault Pen and Paper Theatre for their efforts. Script aside, Forse was able to work around the limitations of his venue (and subsequent design restrictions) and produce a play that showcases two very promising performers, if not an adequate showcase of the play itself. It’s a solid start from a young company, and it’ll be interesting to see where they go from here.