Steps and words. Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell in The Limit

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London
October 23, 2023

I will freely admit to not being a big fan of dancers speaking. Too often it’s not very well done and feels out of place. No such problems here. And The Limit, adapted from Sam Steiner’s play, Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons by the playwright himself, director Ed Madden (who directed the original stage play) and choreographer Kristen McNally does have a lot of speech. But it has a lot of dance too, with both performed outstandingly by Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell.

The Limit is centred around a new law that limits the number of words anyone can speak in a day to 140. It’s not a work about words, it’s a work about not having, or rather not being allowed, words. At least in one sense. But more than anything, it’s about its only two characters, Bernadette, a lawyer, and her boyfriend Oliver. It’s about how their relationship develops and changes as the limit is imposed, and what that does to how they communicate. Dialogue, dance and music fuse effortlessly as the couple ride the changes in life and love.

It starts playfully. They talk, they debate, they say “I love you” a lot. They flirt. They dance and talk at the same time. Quite brilliantly. They fall for each other. It’s romcom.

Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell (hidden) in The Limit
Photo ROH / Camilla Greenwell

Kristen McNally’s slightly quirky, light touch choreography fits the work perfectly. Nestling beautifully with the text, it’s often playful, sometimes spiky, always colloquial. There’s a conversation in words and in movement as Hayward and Campbell loop around each other. They switch tack in an instant. One moment they are acting goofily, the next, whether dancing or speaking it seems like we are watching real people in a totally authentic relationship. They really do make us feel for them.

It’s all played out to Isobel Waller-Bridge’s perfectly pitched new score played live by Robert Clark (Piano), Tessa Seymour (Cello), Florence Garel (Violin) and Francesca Lombardelli (Percussion). It reflects absolutely the couple’s moods and feelings. When Oliver reports back on a protest march he went on, I’ll swear you can hear the noise of the protesters in it. It’s just a shame that the music drowns the words once or twice.

But as good as the choreography and music is, The Limit really works because of the brilliant chemistry between Hayward and Campbell. That they love each other is clear. But they also wind each other up. They have things they hide too, issues that are bubbling away not far beneath the surface, but that are always pushed away.

Hayward’s Bernadette is smart, bright but sometimes defensive, and resents Julie, his ex, who we discover he still meets occasionally. On a protest march. Even in bed. Campbell’s Oliver scorns her job. He’s looser, on the surface more easy-going, but tends to bottle things up. “Sometimes you don’t like to say things,” she says. “Sometimes,” he agrees.

Alexander Campbell and Francesca Hayward
in The Limit
Photo ROH / Camilla Greenwell

The moment when his anger at the new law suddenly spills out, exploding in dance and words with full force, is one of the work’s memorable moments. But for all their differences, it keeps coming back to “I love you.” And for all their differences, you feel they need each other too. In so many ways.

Some of The Limit is deeply thoughtful but there are plenty of moments to make you smile, notably as the pair discuss how they might get round the new law. Tricky, especially when even ordering a smoothie takes 40 words, as Bernadette observes. They try Morse Code, a non-starter and too slow, and talking with their eyes, decidedly weird. Oddly, neither thinks of texting and such like. Words come tumbling out as they try to say things they always wanted to say. And then time is up. The limit has arrived.

Life now revolves around numbers. How many words used? How many left? If one of them keeps back fewer words for the time they are together, does that say something about how they feel for their partner? There’s a dramatic moment when she explodes at him. But he’s out of words. Can’t answer.

The Limit does start to question the law, notably that fact that its equitable in that it applies to all but inequitable in that some sections of society rely more on words and some are more able to deal with the restrictions. Oliver calls it elitist. He probably has a point, not least because those in power soon make themselves the first exception. One rule for us and one for them. But even here there’s time for a moment of lightness. “The fate of newsreaders is unknown,” we hear. Cue much laughing.

Not questioned is the law’s viability and the impossibility of enforcement, however. Yet everyone seems to self-enforce, although maybe that’s not as far fetched as we might like to think.

Near the end, Hayward and Campbell even get to sing a little, bursting into an individual rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’. The title is a perfect metaphor for their situation, their feelings, and their place in the changed world. It is precisely what they are doing as they try to navigate their way through the circumstances they find themselves in. The duet that follows as Springsteen’s recording kicks in is remarkably upbeat. A moment of hope, perhaps.

The Limit may be a bit of an experiment. It’s certainly Hayward and Campbell as you have never seen them. It’s also a super 70 minutes of theatre, dance theatre, call it what you will. Highly recommended.