When I arrived at the Belvoir St theatre for a performance of Love Me Tender last Thursday, a sign caught my eye. “No mobile phones. No photography. No food and drinks. No mint sauce”. Hmmm. Unfortunately, this turned out to be the high point of the evening...
Imagine you’ve been asked to write a play. Where are you going to start? With an idea. A big issue. It needs to be something confronting. Something thought provoking. Something current, that shows you’re not afraid to take risks, and tackle the hard subjects. Then you need a way to convey that to the audience. How about an analogy? Such a great way to make a big issue more approachable. Now what? Now you’re ready.
In the olden days, kids were taught grammar at school. When you studied a book or a play (because you never got to study films back then), it had a situation, a conflict, and a resolution. Now, there is twittering. They’ll be studying that soon, too. And a structured format is so passé. No doubt about it – Love Me Tender is a new play.
Love Me Tender contemplates the premature sexualisation of girls, viewed against a backdrop of incest. The writer, Tom Holloway, does this by comparing girls to innocent little furry animals. We don’t want to hurt them, but our base instincts compel us to destroy (no, not enough emotion – to disembowel) these sweet little creatures because they will make such a delicious meal. This appears to be a fairly facile comparison, and one that can lead to some questionable conclusions if thought about for any length of time. “Meat is murder” is a vegetarian slogan that’s been around a while, but “meat is child abuse”?
“She’s not really into narrative structure”. When Belinda McClory issues this pronouncement early in the play, it could be a description of Holloway’s own style. Because, other than the pre-requisite Big Idea, there’s not much holding Love Me Tender together. There are five narrators, who act out aspects of the behaviour that they describe and break inexplicably into song from time to time. The absence of characters holds us at arm’s length and, worse, impedes development of a plot beyond its flimsy beginnings. Dialogue is largely free-form, as though it is being improvised, and involves a lot of repetition. While this device was interesting for the first couple of minutes, it becomes downright irritating after a solid half hour, and adds further to the audience’s disengagement. Simply arriving at each statement feels enormously effortful, like trying to empty a bathtub with a tea cup. The sparse set, designed by Adam Gardnir, adds to the feeling of watching an early workshopping session.
As though to compensate for the thin storyline and absence of character development, Matthew Lutton uses a range of production effects to add visual interest. The use of water as a sullying influence rather than a purifying force is an interesting one, although the execution, like much of the play, is heavy-handed. A scene involving a garden sprinkler and Britney Spears blaring at full blast is among the least subtle I’ve seen in any production (although this is an achievement in itself). Later, water vapour swirls around the set, almost hiding the actors from view. Unfortunately, it can’t stop us hearing them. And finally, in the closest thing we reach to a denouement, the animal references become physical. However, by that stage, no number of cute cameos feels sufficient to break the odd sense of detachment that permeates the entire production.
Watching Love Me Tender feels like watching a brainstorming session for an idea in its incipient stages of development. There was a sense of disappointment at what could have been – while great theatre can be challenging and different, the lack of light and shade and the failure to develop the initial inspiration meant it left the audience uncomfortable, but maybe not for the intended reasons.
I was curious, after I finished venting my disappointment in a play I’d had high expectations for, to see how it had been received by others...