A white cube immersed in pitch black. Two minimalist beds and small pillows, a few cubic boxes, a pile of shiny silver cans neatly stacked. While this may sound like the description of a shop window Muji, it’s in fact the set design of Love Lab. Keeping the setting extremely basic focalises the audience’s attention on the action and, more crucially, on the script of this compelling, insightful, and relevant play.
Livia (Harriet Barrow) and Perry (Michael Rivers) are – more or less proactively – looking for love. At the opening of the play we find them “matched” (or trapped?) in a semi-sci-fi reality show, Love Lab, where couples of singles spend seven days in the same room and are encouraged to “synchronise” (or find out if they are compatible?) Fascinatingly, the show is a journey through what it means to “synchronise” in the world of smartphone-obsessed and reputation-oriented millennials.
The personalities of Livia and Perry are the pillars of the show; the mission of Love Lab (both in the fiction of the reality show and in the play itself) is to uncover their characters in a credible way – and this is accomplished. Social media-savvy Livia is chatty, extroverted and meticulous; Perry is technology-agnostic, straightforward, and massively into tea, which he deems a “social lubricator” and describes as “inclusive” and “important”. He is old-fashioned, but refreshingly so. The performances of both are strong and convincing, with only a hint of over-indulgence in the self-containment of the stage, which at times results in cutting the audience off from the action.
Interestingly, the audience is led to “label” the couple as much as the two characters do themselves as they get to know each other, with the help of Lucy, a pre-recorded voice which guides the dating process. As the reality show progresses, under the pressure of Lucy we discover new facets of Livia and Perry, including traits they are afraid to admit even to themselves. Barrow and Rivers master the journey throughout, going from awkward estrangement to glimpses of chemistry, to an unexpected (if a bit rushed) ending. If anything, it would have been intriguing to see more of their relationship after Love Lab.
There’s a point being made about our tendency to assess situations far too quickly, and to judge people on first impressions – Tinder being the most emblematic example of this. Many lines and situations ring distinctively true, uncovering our dependency on technology, our reluctance to share our inner selves, our starting to care about people once we hear about their wounds.
Inspired by ‘The 36 Questions’, an experiment conducted in the 1960s by professor Arthur Aron, who managed to make two complete strangers fall in love, Love Lab exploits the utter relevance of this and applies it to modern dating. The result is a meditation on loneliness and relationships, on the aspiration to connect but the inevitability of isolation if we do this forcefully.
Love Lab is playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 18 August. For more information and tickets, click here.
Photo: d’Animate Productions