Photo: Pamela Raith

Miriam Battye’s new two-hander, Strategic Love Play, earned rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe last month and has now opened at the Soho Theatre in London. Having been to check it out last week, it’s easy to see why: a smart deconstruction of modern dating, we encounter Man (Archie Backhouse) and Woman (Letty Thomas) in a pub – effectively we, the audience, are flies on the wall at their first date. What ensues is 70 minutes comprising two excellent performers exchanging some wonderfully witty and unexpected dialogue.

It starts conventionally enough – our pair arrive in the pub, pints in hand, and engage in some awkward jokey small talk about how conventional this all is, congratulating themselves for managing to move things off the apps and making it as far as a date in the real world. Pretty quickly things take a turn, as Woman suggests they skip this step entirely – the whole dating rigmarole – and just aim straight for a relationship there and then. Cue a first date that is full of unexpected twists and turns, and all the more enjoyable for it.

It’s a play that’s full of home truths, featuring some extremely on-the-nose commentary about how performative this whole ritual is, and how exhausting the endless parade of first dates can be, and how degrading it can feel to reduce ourselves to a smile on a screen. Our pair are in their 30s, their friends are all shacked up and Man and Woman are the ones in their respective social circles who are still single, worried that they’re destined to live alone in tiny flats stacked on top of each other until they die. It would be a bleak critique of 21st century dating if Strategic Love Play wasn’t also hilariously funny.

We don’t want to give any of the punchlines away, of course, but there are some astute observations about the realities of romantic relationships in adult life versus the expectations we’ve been set growing up; there are some blistering arguments with illogical and amusingly-cringeworthy lines; there’s a hilarious description of the concerned, pitying faces their friends make when they talk about their dating lives.

It’s gripping stuff – 70 minutes absolutely flies by. Although they’re reluctant to admit it, there’s a palpable chemistry between Man and Woman, and sparks really do fly over the course of the evening; we were genuinely intrigued to see how this date would turn out. It can feel quite tense and awkward at times – it’s perhaps not one to watch on an actual date – but a hugely enjoyable night at the theatre nonetheless.

GAY TIMES gives Strategic Love Play – 4/5

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