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.