How Love is Spelt is a naturalistic play exploring the themes of love among a series of bizarre modern relationships. It’s an intriguing script and examines some enigmatic characters, but lacks a story that feels relevant or interesting. The play consists of five duologues, all of which are brief relationships that are tied together with a current of love, loneliness and milk! Each scene incorporates initial chatty nonsense and then delves into deeper personal experiences about love, but the meaning is disjointed and each scene feels unconnected from the last. What’s difficult is that the main character Peta (Larner Wallace-Taylor) doesn’t reveal her true identity. Instead she is a blank canvas of nothingness around the colourful people she encounters. She lies her way through each scene and it isn’t until the very end when we seem to grasp some idea of who she is. As an audience member, it’s difficult to feel any empathy for this character or even invested in the story. Instead, we feel ambivalence towards her, and she feels inhospitable.
This realist play is made up of five encounters with vibrant people Peta meets in her two weeks in London. In between these scenes are surreal transitions that are dreamlike and utterly absurd. This is a huge contrast in style to the naturalistic scenes and is jarring to watch.
Joe (Benjamin O’Mahony) is first with his larger than life persona. We watch as they have an awkward morning after talk where Joe’s oblivious and tactless chat is hilarious. His laddish demeanour is amusing, and they create an interesting dynamic together. However from this point onwards, the play is repetitive and the conversation feels dull.
The script itself is nicely written by Chloe Moss, with an easy rhythm of overlapping dialogue. However some of the language feels out of date to our 2019 ears. Even though it’s only a 15-year-old play, it’s a little outdated to use metaphors that are homophobic and so unpleasant to hear. Despite this, the script flows effortlessly and captures real life moments. What’s unclear is what each scenes purpose is, which makes it feel lacking in an objective. Moss is addressing some interesting issues of loneliness and love, but this doesn’t come through and it has an absence of cohesion.
Larner Wallace-Taylor plays a strangely unemotional Peta who is hard to figure out. Her portrayal of a young, confused adult is plain and impersonal. The pace of her speech stays very much the same throughout and I yearn for more gusto in her performance. O’Mahony is a punchy contrast to the quiet Wallace-Taylor and has a cockney charisma that is pleasing to watch. Yana Penrose as Chantelle is delightfully chatty and the motherly Marion (Michelle Collins) is heart-warmingly personable. Duncan Moore plays a nerdy teacher Steven and is sweet to begin with, but is quickly irritable with an overly frantic persona. We then end with Colin (Nigel Boyle) who does well to grasp this father like figure with loving authority. The play includes a range of personalities that are fun to see and each actor takes on their role with vivid energy.
How Love is Spelt is a confusing play that doesn’t get the audience on its side for us to feel responsive. The characters who do open up and create a bond with the audience are only on stage for one scene. Therefore as good as the actors are, the story is too meaningless to feel fully engaging.
How Love is Spelt is playing at The Southwark Playhouse until 28 September. For more information and tickets, visit the Southwark Playhouse website.