Playbill Pick: Bitter Lemons at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe | Playbill

Playbill Goes Fringe Playbill Pick: Bitter Lemons at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

This play by Lucy Hayes delivers a very real portrait of what it’s like to face an unexpected pregnancy—and to get an abortion.

Bitter Lemons

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with nearly 3,500 shows. This year, Playbill is in Edinburgh for the entire month in August for the festival and we’re taking you with us. Follow along as we cover every single aspect of the Fringe, aka our real-life Brigadoon!

As part of our Edinburgh Fringe coverage, Playbill is seeing a whole lotta shows—and we're sharing which ones you absolutely must see if you're only at the Fringe for a short amount of time. Consider these Playbill Picks a friendly, opinionated guide as you try to choose a show at the festival.

In the basement an old stone building at Pleasance Courtyard, the audience shuffled into a small room. The stage is marked out via a shiny black floor with white tape crisscrossing it to form foot-sized squares. There are two mics. The actors (Shannon Hayes and Chanel Waddock) make their entrances, standing opposite each other in the center as if looking into a mirror. This is Lucy Hayes’ Bitter Lemons.

The two-hander has the women delivering monologues as their stories unfold in parallel. One is a biracial woman making her way in the finance sector, determined to do well so she can give herself an “easy life” and take care of her mom’s mortgage. The other is a white woman who will finally get her shot at being the number one goalie on her football team. And in tandem, they tell their stories, through the second person, to the audience.

They share their complex relationships with their mothers, absent fathers, and the pressures and expectations of being women. They both also have a decision to make: whether or not to have an abortion.

Bitter Lemons is not loud in how it cries out about the horrifying denial of healthcare, agency, and legal rights to pregnant individuals around the world. (While set in the U.K., important details included in the work also relate to abortion laws in the United States. Hayes wrote Bitter Lemons following the overturning of Roe v. Wade.) Instead, it delivers very honest portraits of being a woman, and why pregnant individuals seek abortions. 

The footballer is focused on getting her big break and a pregnancy would sideline her. The investment banker doesn’t seem keen on having children, especially as a newly single woman. One makes the decision quickly. The other struggles to get the words, “I want an abortion” out. “Want” is the key word by U.K. law. Waddock and Hayes deliver stunningly real performances—organic and grounded in the way that makes you forget these are actors.

The characters inform themselves on what happens during each week of pregnancy, to understand what is happening in their own bodies. And there’s information delivered here that subtly explains the reality of what pregnant people are facing when it comes to their healthcare rights. Across the United States, several states laws have made it illegal to get an abortion after six weeks—the point in their pregnancies at which Bitter Lemons’ characters find out. And they both discover that it is dated to someone’s last period rather than the date of conception. Some who are considered six weeks pregnant have actually only been pregnant for three of them—and are left with merely a couple of days to make decisions and acquire an abortion before they break the law.

And while Hayes manages to integrate so much information into the work, it doesn’t pour out in a heavy-handed way. It’s contextualized within the play, and balanced by insight, by some gorgeous turns-of-phrases, and the kind of raw honesty many women shy away from voicing aloud. One character says, “You can’t predict the future. Can’t anticipate it. You’re not in control of anything. Not even your own body.”

The other blurts out, “I’m pregnant” to a friend who has done round after round of IVF with no success. “She can smell your hesitation,” she says. “And you know she’s going to hate you. You who has the audacity to destroy the life she so desperately craves.”

Bitter Lemons puts us in each of the characters’ heads by that use of the second person pronoun. And through that writing choice, it also reminds us (in a play where the characters have no names) that they stand for countless, nameless women. It reminds audience members who can identify with their experiences that actually, this is their story too. 

Bitter Lemons runs at Pleasance Courtyard’s Beneath through August 28. It will then transfer to Bristol Old Vic after the Edinburgh Fringe for a run September 5-9. Click here to see more recommended shows playing at Pleasance Courtyard. 

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