We all know how it goes – boy meets girl, boy screws girl, boy and girl variously fall in love and drift apart before finally ending up together. It’s a story as old as the monetisation of human intimacy. Dirty Great Love Story tells it without any flash – our boy is Richard, a lovable klutz, who meets Katie, a tidy and correct but essentially characterless civil servant, on a stag night.
The play’s central innovation is that it’s told almost completely in rhyme. This initially seems like an impressive gimmick – after all, even Shakespeare never wrote an entire play in rhymed verse. The dialogue itself, however, doesn’t always live up to the premise. It frequently feels as if the writers (Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna; the characters are named after them) want to pair poetry with blue humour, but miss the mark on both and end up with confused or hackneyed metaphors borrowed from cheesy rom-coms. An especially tortured analogy between love and a visit to the optician ends with Richard proclaiming that Katie has ‘put new glasses on my heart’.
The humour suffers from these shortcomings. Often the jokes have the same form. There is a double entendre, a cringing turn to the audience and then, inevitably, an expletive – mostly ‘shit’. I’m sure the word ‘shit’ was the punchline to at least half the gags.
The lazy, cloying keenness of the comedy is equalled by the triteness of the structure. It swallows achingly tired clichés – the awkward hero pitted against the cocky blowhard, the long-term friend with the secret infatuation, the quirky sidekick – and spits them back at its audience, never questioning its own assumptions.
The same cheap joke over and over, the pauses for audience encouragement, the Carry On-style fourth wall-busting innuendos – the whole experience has something of an end-of-pier feel to it. Love Actually as panto.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism – it could even be a tagline – and there are many fine pantomimes. But what it really reminded me of was bad panto, in which the cringe frequently overwhelms the fun.
The performances offer minor consolations; the two actors shift characters impressively throughout, and both have presence. But they can’t save their show, a wince-inducing throwback that culminates, fittingly, with a giant neon heart descending upon a kissing couple.