Sometimes when it comes to love stories we feel like we’ve heard it all. The meeting, the falling, the conflict, and the choice about whether to push through it or go separate ways. Of course, some love stories try to subvert expectations, but ultimately that’s the bread and butter of it all. James Rowland’s solo show, A Hundred Different Words for Love, does not put a new spin on this formula so much as reclaim it, retell it, celebrate it, and call attention to its faults.
Featuring live keyboard playing, looped and overlapped with story-telling, this show is performed as spoken word, which is sometimes casual and sometimes structured. Rowland plays a lovelorn Londoner who meets a girl, falls for her, faces conflict, and makes a choice. His on-stage persona feels affectingly personal, in spite of his insistence that everything he describes is fictional. We learn very little about the unnamed love interest in question. Like Nietzsche said, “it is the desire, not the desired, that we love” – this is a show about being in love, rather than the relationship itself.
The writing is effortlessly lyrical; age-old metaphors and clichés are revived with a freshness and a tenderness that overcomes any risk of corniness. In explanation of the breakdown of the relationship, he wordlessly lights a match and lets it burn down to his fingers. The crucial difference between Rowland’s show and one that relies solely on material we have all seen a thousand times before it how self-aware it is. Remarking that he (his character that is) is the child of Curtis-era British cinema, the parallels in tone and tropes are undeniable. Unexpectedly, the show goes in depth about heteronormativity, the cultural assumption of a binary, monogamous society, and the privilege of being a cisgender white man.
If that sounds like a bit of a mouthful for a straightforward ode to rom-coms of years gone by, the effect it has is to make the audience re-evaluate how love and society are reflected within them. The humble, almost apologetic handling of this self-reflection neither demonises itself or its predecessors nor ignores its context in a culture where representation is so hotly debated and challenged. Rowland’s writing and visceral story-telling create a show that, despite featuring only a keyboard, an amp, and a man in a suit on stage, is beautifully and vividly realised. It will have you smiling and sighing the whole way through.