Review: “An insightful and relevant work” ★★★★ Kiss Me, Trafalgar Studios

Over 700,000 British men died in World War I. With an outbreak of Spanish Flu killing millions more after the fighting had finished, Britain was left with a vastly depleted male population.

The consequences of this devastating loss of life were felt for many years and master storyteller Richard Bean explores the terrible legacy in his play Kiss Me at Trafalgar Studios.

We meet Stephanie (Claire Lams) over a decade after the end of the war, a widow who became a lorry driver to help the effort on the home front. At 32 she is seen by society as past it, but longs for a child and thanks to a fairly cloak and dagger scheme by a local doctor, is given the chance to conceive. She is visited by a travelling impregnating machine in the shape of Dennis (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) who has taken it upon himself to repopulate London because as he says “Turkey basters don’t work” and after fathering over 200 children, he is doing fairly well.

But the underlying reasons behind his sexual prowess realistically stem from his survivor’s guilt and in finding a kindred spirit in Stephanie, the purpose of his vocation is thrown into question.

Despite being set in 1929, the themes of human displacement and a desperate search for a reason for existence feel impeccably relevant. The nervous ramblings of Stephanie when they first meet – allowing too much of herself to be exposed and filling any empty space with meaningless chatter – is something I’m sure many of us have experienced on a first date. But, this is supposed to be more of business transaction and that further generates the debate over whether there is a difference between having sex and making love.

Bean has become more well-known in recent years for his crowd-pleasing comedies – including the hugely popular One Man Two Guvnors – but this return to small-scale intimate drama is a welcome one. His script is filled with amusing interludes, but at all times maintains an underlying feeling of desperation.

Claire Lams is totally captivating as Stephanie, cutesy and self-deprecating, while maintaining a forthrightness by illustrating the rise of female empowerment, something that was very much in its infancy in the 1920s.

Ben Lloyd-Hughes is more reserved and makes it clear from his stiff posture and stand-offish body language throughout that this is a man who is tormented by his past and is determined not to let anyone crack his armour.

At just 70 minutes, you are definitely left with unanswered questions and it wouldn’t hurt to explore some of the issue and characters a little deeper, but this play is, nevertheless, an insightful and relevant work, which is worth a look.

Kiss Me is at Trafalgar Studios until 8 July 

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We talk to Ben Lloyd-Hughes about Kiss Me at Trafalgar Studios

Following a critically acclaimed run at Hampstead Theatre, Richard Bean’s two-hander Kiss Me has transferred to Trafalgar Studios and with the pairing of Claire Lams and Ben Lloyd-Hughes reprising their roles, the thought provoking 1920’s drama promises to be another hit, writes Nicky Sweetland.

Set post World War I, when Britain is reeling from the loss of so many men, the story follows Stephanie, a 32-year-old widow, desperate for a child. Her plight is recognised by Dennis, who has taken it upon himself to impregnate husbandless women.

Ben Lloyd-Hughes told us, “This play asks the questions about what this scenario would be like and what happens if they also have a connection.”

But, Ben’s character isn’t just an opportunistic Lothario and Ben explains, “You’ll really find out what’s going on inside his head and his justification for doing it. There’s a lot more hidden there and there’s a lot more to do with the war and his own guilt”

Film fans know Ben Lloyd-Hughes for his role in the dystopian action thriller Divergent, but the actor is perhaps most recognised for his portrayal of Josh Stock in the television series Skins. Ben previously appeared in the West End transfer of the Royal Court’s production of Jumpy.

I ask Ben what it’s like to be returning to the role he left behind last year. “It’s been a joy to reconnect not only with Claire [Lams] and our director, Anna [Ledwich] but also just with the text itself and to re-find it, recreate but also find new things about it. Anna has encouraged us to treat this as something new while also honouring how successful and great it was last time.”

Writer, Richard Bean is best known for his seminal work, One Man, Two Guvnors, a play, which is defined as a bawdy crowd pleaser. Kiss Me is a much more potent project and tackles some modern issues under the guise of a historical drama.

“The play talks a lot about feminism and female empowerment because this was a time when there was still a lot of sexism.” Ben explains, “Everything was still behind closed doors, but at the same time – because of the war – a lot of the women were having to do the men’s jobs and so it actually led to a lot of female empowerment.”

Kiss Me is at Trafalgar Studios until 8 Jul