In the final act of Mike Bartlett’s time-traveling “Love, Love, Love,” 37-year-old Rose (Claire Foy) rounds on her parents, excoriating them for lifelong irresponsibility, not least their sudden divorce. “It was dramatic,” she cries. Ironically, highly entertaining though this sharp comedy initially is, fully dramatic it isn’t. Rose’s climactic political analysis is driven not by character or preceding drama but by Bartlett’s theorizing. In a novel, a form privy to commentary, that’s fine. In a play, this lengthy “what the play’s about” speech feels like a cheat.
Bartlett’s attack on the selfishness of the baby-boomer generation starts out in the summer of 1967 with 19-year-old Kenneth (Ben Miles), down from Oxford university, taking up too much space in the scrappy flat of his four-square, hard-working older brother Henry (Sam Troughton). With arguments about class and underwear hanging out to dry, it’s like a more muzzled “Look Back in Anger” without the ironing board.
Into this combustible mix wafts Henry’s privileged girlfriend Sandra. Played by Victoria Hamilton with blissful comic timing, Sandra is stoned and thinks nothing of filling the room with tension as she manipulates everyone to her advantage with talk of the future and free love while eyeing up Kenneth. It’s blisteringly clear that, at old-school Henry’s expense, these two will get their way.
Jump-cutting in the second act to 1990, married Kenneth and Sandra are now mired in parenting and other traditional mid-life crises. On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, Rose and her 14-year-old brother Jamie (George Rainsford) are as dismissive of their parents as they are secretly needy.
Bartlett’s lacerating dialogue balances satiric intent with painful truth about a long-married couple who feel trapped. Fueled by wine, tiredness and disappointment with whatever happened to their youthful idealism, Miles and Hamilton simply don’t miss a trick as they tear strips off one another. Their zinging precision means bitter laughs fly and everything turns nasty with unexpected revelations. However, the consequent sudden rise in stakes comes at the expense of plausibility.
That sense of contrivance becomes even more present in the third and last scene, set in 2011, where Rose brings her divorced parents back together for the afternoon so that she can read them the riot act. There are still some laughs at Kenneth and Sandra’s selfishness but the scene, character trajectories and, crucially, Rose’s grandstanding speech all feel constructed solely to support Bartlett’s viewpoint. The overstated argument about the generation whose selfishness failed to create a better world for their children may be highly attractive, especially to younger audiences, but it’s one-sided and not embodied by the preceding action.
James Grieve’s production, recast from its 2010 premiere, has some inconsistencies of tone and performance but it is notably alert to Bartlett’s painstakingly planted themes, which are echoed in Lucy Osborne’s design, notably in her costumes. The latter not only unostentatiously nail the three different time-periods, they (and the wigs) expertly age Hamilton and Miles up and down to startling effect. But the neatness of the conception — music in each era is referenced and evidenced by a record player, then a stereo system, then an iPad — grows a shade wearying since it’s ultimately as self-satisfied as the generation the play is attacking.