Pity the new couple who blithely booked to see Strategic Love Play, seduced by the rave reviews it landed at the Edinburgh fringe last month, and the fact it has ‘love’ in the title. Miriam Battye’s comedy is bitter enough to wither any budding romance like an early frost. It’s cynical, fun, and as gripping as a friend’s rapid-fire WhatsApps from a disastrous first date.
It centres on ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ (trendy plays don’t allot names any more, ’tis the law), who matched on a dating app and are now doomed to torment each other for the duration of at least two pints. He’s just a nice bloke: Archie Blackhouse is all affable, slightly dozy charm as he sips his beer and tries to take the awkwardness of the situation in his stride.
And she’s an absolute nightmare: Letty Thomas fizzes with the confidence of a cabaret host as she tears into him, hungrily pulling apart his weaknesses, self-destructively testing his politeness to its absolute limits.
It’s hilarious to watch (to his horror, she calls cyclists “shrink-wrapped wetties”), but painful too, because Thomas and Blackhouse have a genuine chemistry that glues them uncomfortably together, long after he should have stormed off home.
There’s a Jane Austen-esque precision to Battye’s observations on love as a currency, “I’m a single woman and I’ve had enough bullshit reassurance to sink an aeroplane,” says its oh-so-practical protagonist, before suggesting an arrangement that’s the 21st century equivalent of Charlotte Lucas’s marriage of convenience in Pride & Prejudice.
Here, being in a couple means security, not dying alone, an escape from scrutiny, an end to worrying your friends – there’s nothing romantic about it.Still, for all its practicality, there’s also a surprising glimmer of magic in Strategic Love Play. Katie Posner’s direction sparks with jolting transitions and surprising flourishes, like the amber stream of beer that unexpectedly pours from a light fitting into this couple’s glasses.
Battye’s writing, too, is endlessly surprising and flexible, especially as she gives Him a backstory that both undermines and justifies his almost aggressive niceness.
Ultimately, Battye’s play feels like an ingenious encapsulation of the ways that online dating warps human interactions, twisting them into something transactional, performative, horrifically exposing yet free from social accountability. But somehow, it manages to feel hopeful too, thanks to the irrepressible sparkiness in its characters and the satisfying ambiguity embedded in its ending. Perhaps it’s not such a bad play to see on a date, after all.
Soho Theatre, to September 23; sohotheatre.com