Lamorna Ash’s offering for the Oxford New Writing Festival delivers a powerful indictment of modern sexual politics – but considering its subject matter, the play feels remarkably chaste. Love Plus is a dystopian parable warning against the dangers of men’s desire for perfection, manifested in the titular ‘Love Plus’ programme – a living and breathing ‘woman’ subservient to the whims of its owner. The clear overtones of prostitution and sexual slavery are evident; why, then, does this performance feel so distant from the very real threat of violence it seeks to portray?
It’s partly the unfortunate lack of chemistry between gentle James and his narcissistic boyfriend Chris, the genius behind Love Plus’ creation. The interactions between James and Ayah, his virtual girlfriend (the latter of whom is, intriguingly, replaced by a different actress in each scene), also feel wrong, but in an awkward, rather than voyeuristic, sense. Even when he is pushed to breaking point and slaps her, the moment doesn’t feel as wrong as it should. The set, by contrast, feels perfectly suited to the bleak atmosphere of stagnation. Oppressive wooden blocks are the only furniture onstage, and when one Ayah is present with James her two counterparts remain slightly obscured by a translucent screen in the corner. One almost forgets their presence until certain of Ayah’s catchphrases – ‘you’re such a great boyfriend’ – are spoken by all three in unison. The effect is disturbing, all the more so when one recognises that at no point in the play is any character really offstage. There is no privacy in this piece.
The pervasive unsettling quality of Love Plus is certainly Ash’s most impressive achievement. The transitions between scenes are abrupt, unexpected and create a disorienting chronology, which fits in perfectly with both James and Chris’ diminishing perception of what is real and what is not. Subtle hints to the state of the outside world give the play a Huxley-esque edge as the male characters slip between states of catharsis and catatonia, drugging themselves with flawless female bodies, even though the action never leaves their apartment. The steady corruption of the Love Plus not-quite-robots from sustained interaction with Chris and James is a nice touch as well, as their language as well as their bodies decay. Misha Pinnington’s performance as the final incarnation of Love Plus is particularly affecting as the machines slowly gain awareness of the flaws in both Chris and Jamie; one feels that their plight is a greater tragedy than even James’. Love Plus’s message is clear and strident regarding the horrors of slavery as well as patriarchy, but I can’t help but feel that the play’s stilted relationships prevent it from being more than good.