Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Lovers Walk, Southwark Playhouse

Review: Lovers Walk, Southwark Playhouse

Published on Culture Wars, 05.10.2010

There’s something about the South Bank. Somehow, it overcomes its own cliche to retain its romance. Somehow you can own it. London disappears and – momentarily – its just the two of you. Waterloo Bridge has hosted no less than seven of my first kisses. The riverside walkways are lined with various hand-in-hand strolls. I’ve ambled through the Tate Modern attempting to craft a cultured persona; I’ve shared ice creams by the Scoop and – just like Rosie and Matt, the couple whose relationship we trace in this gentle charm of a promenade – I’ve leant over the river’s railing, my shoulder softly grazing hers (or hers, or hers), and stared at London Bridge in silence, caught in a suspended sigh.

It is London’s prime kissing post. It really is Lovers Walk.

Led by two actors-cum-tourguides, we wonder through Southwark’s back streets and down to the riverbank, stopping en route at key sites. This alley – tucked behind a cubist clash of glass-fronted offices and housing estates, littered with scaffolding and two sad green beer bottles – introduced them to each other. Looking up from his cigarette, Matt saw Rosie and her red umbrella. The same red umbrella he’d followed a few weeks back in the hope of engineering a chance meeting. A chance meeting such as this. The alley probably doesn’t know what it started. After all, it’s just an alley: the urban equivalent of a clearing in the forest, unaware of its own magic.

Through their intimate encounters – first kisses, first arguments, idle smalltalk about cobbles and warships, break-ups and reunions – the city is slowly reconfigured. This is a tourist trail of echoes. Outwardly mundane spots – nooks, crannies, air-vents, benches – are elevated into monuments to their romantic entanglements.

The lingering tremors, still vibrating long after the event, are well handled in Gemma Kerr’s production. You tingle as their recounted; your spine seems to shiver. Matt Odell and Rosie Waters step in and out of a story that may or may not be theirs: playing out an argument, reconstructing an embrace. Their fictional counterparts, also Matt and Rosie, seem like invisible ghosts, superimposed on the geography. They exist as spaces. We seem to stand around them looking on, while Odell and Waters narrate their private thoughts and actions. To us, we are watching an embrace caught in time, stamped onto the nondescript urban landscape like lovers transposed onto celluloid. To passers by, walking through the city as per, unaware of Matt and Rosie’s history, we must appear to be focussing in on nothing in particular.

And, in a sense, we are. Lovers Walk is as light and frothy as a first-date cappuccino. It’s airy and sweet, but it barely offers anything calorific. Nor does Matt and Rosie’s relationship seem a particularly interesting specimen. They meet, they court, they fall in love, he cheats, they break up, they struggle apart, they reconvene. The narrative comes straight off the production line; turn it upside down and you’ll find “Made in Curtisland” printed underneath. But only by fitting the mould does it gain its considerable charm.

The path it follows, the story it unravels episodically, is the standard-issue fairytale for an audience that won’t allow itself to believe in fairytales. It has just the right amount of heartbreak to appease the cynicism of the urban romantic. Where traditional fairytales have their protagonists overcome adversity in order for love to blossom, the contemporary equivalent has chance throw lovers together before ensuring that they produce their own obstacle, which is, in turn, subdued. We simply won’t accept the smooth running of true love and so Marcelo dos Santos throws in an affair – and a drunken, impulsive, one-off affair at that.

Matt’s fling, then, the obstacle to their blossoming relationship is a contemporary cliche. But, because it seems to subvert the notion of fairytale, confirming our realistic expectations that love is not an easy ride, it is precisely what allows us to take ownership of the narrative ourselves. Their imperfections allow us to cast ourselves as Romeo and leap into the fantasy of life throwing up a soulmate from the flotsam of the urban existence.

Like the South Bank, it’s not so much that Lovers Walk overcomes its cliches to acquire its romance. Rather it does so by wearing those cliches quite openly. Our ownership of both occurs because they exist as conventional ideals. We picture ourselves stepping into the archetypal fantasy, rather than happening upon our own route. Not only can we see ourselves as Rosie or Matt, we positively long for what they’ve got.

Lovers Walk manipulates those whimsical ambitions artfully. But you can’t help but feel a bit cheated afterwards.

Image: Highhearted Theatre

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