Strategic Love Play review – Soho Theatre, London ★★★★☆

Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

Review by Carla Rudgyard

In the age of the internet, we’ve all experienced the formalities of a first date with someone you met online. That’s why everyone will relate to Miriam Battye’s brutal and clever dissection of the transactional and formulaic nature of 21st-century dating in Strategic Love Play.

We meet our hopeful lovers at a pub. It’s fantastically awkward, as our Woman (Letty Thomas) and our Man (Archie Backhouse) stumble through conventional date-talk protocol with brilliantly believable silences, conversational errors and phonetic failures that exhibit Battye’s tremendous talent for writing realistic and nuanced dialogue. The characters experience their clumsy first date over a beer (or six) at a revolving table in a pub (Rhys Jarman), where 10 or so lampshades hang above their heads (Rajiv Pattani) like the souls of their previously failing relationships.

Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

But this doesn’t turn out to be a normal ‘two beers and then you go home’ kind of date. After grappling with rejection, Letty Thomas’ quirky, and savagely sceptical character cuts sharply through the expected niceties to upturn their encounter into something far more personal. With wit and stark cynicism, she provokes the man opposite her to drop his façade, with a decisive strategy to restructure their exchange into a relationship master plan where they forgo all pleasantries. Once apologetic and quiet, Archie Backhouse’s character transforms into a communicative and hilariously specific man whose past misjudgments have led to his defeatist mentality.

What’s so clever about this piece, besides Battye’s scintillating writing, is the change we see in Man and Woman’s body language to evolve their once clunky chemistry into couple-y coexistence throughout the night. The direction (Katie Posner) is canny, naturalistic and yet exciting, with invigorating movement adaptations (Gabrielle Nimo) to ensure this play is so much more than two people facing each other at a table.

Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

Similarly to her date, I found myself intrigued by the enigmatic Woman. Despite speaking often, few answers were provided to help demystify who she really is beneath her defensive, facetious surface. Although her emotional back and forths became exhausting at times, her strategic plan for a potential partner was captivating. I was also surprised by the abrupt ending, but its effectiveness is evident because I’m still thinking about it. Battye made a bold choice, and it’ll stick with you.

It’s undeniable that this piece of theatre brilliantly encapsulates the depressing rituals of modern relationships and dating fatigue, and after its success at Edinburgh Fringe in 2023, I’d recommend some strategic ticket searches to see this play, which I think you will love.

Strategic Love Play is at Soho Theatre from 23 May to 15 June 2024