Review – The Sex Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 30th December 2022

Sex PartyWasn’t it the great Jona Lewie who said – and I think it was – You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties? Sadly, that’s where Terry Johnson has chosen to set his latest offering, The Sex Party – not in the living room where everyone’s getting down and dirty, but in the kitchen, where everyone’s either embarrassed, or bitching and moaning, or being offensive or just getting steadily chateau’d. To be honest you’d get a lot more entertainment from Jona Lewie’s 7-incher than you would by sitting through two hours twenty minutes of this dismal and, frankly, unpleasant play.

Hetty and GillyBut first, gentle reader, let me cast your mind back to April of last year. Maria Friedman had just finished her short spell at the Menier performing Legacy, which we unfortunately missed. But we were waiting for the announcement of the next show at this much-loved theatre. And we waited… and we waited. Surely the Menier hasn’t… closed?… we thought? No movement on the website – nothing in the social media. Don’t say this is the end….? And then a sign of life – the Menier would be reopening in November, with the latest play by Terry Johnson. I jumped at the chance – as I am sure many others did. We’ve all missed the Menier and were sad at the thought that it might never reopen; basically we would have booked to see anything. And Terry Johnson too – he’s a reliable old theatrical character, with hits like Dead Funny and Insignificance to his name. What could possibly go wrong?

Great setTo be fair, not quite everything. Tim Shortall has constructed a fantastic set depicting a well-to-do Islington kitchen. Every detail is realised immaculately. The matching kettle and toaster; the yuppie cookbooks including that Leon one that all posh people have; the well-stocked patio garden. Boy, you could live in that kitchen. There are some good performances too. Jason Merrells is a safe pair of hands as Alex, whose home it is and who is holding the party, along with the excellent Molly Osborne as Hetty, who is the bubbliest and most welcoming of hostesses without going over the top. The first scenes find them greeting their first guests, the verging-on-spoilt Gilly (Lisa Dwan) and her husband, the verging-on-tedious Jake (John Hopkins), both excellent in conveying their characters’ annoying habits and difficult relationship.

Alex and GillyStrangely, if Terry Johnson had left it there, with two embarrassed and embarrassing guests being manipulated by two ostensibly charming hosts, it might have developed into something reasonable. A dash of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf mixed with a splodge of Relatively Speaking to make a modern-day Comedy of Manners that dismantles 2022 Britain (and let’s face it, it needs some dismantling) through the eye of a swingers’ party. But no – Johnson gives us five more characters to contend with, four of which position themselves variously on the thoroughly irritating spectrum; and the fifth, a catalyst with which to throw a big spanner in the works.

Jeff and LucyThat last character is Lucy – played with immaculate reserve and control by Pooya Mohseni – a discreet and refined woman who happens to be trans but doesn’t expect to make a big thing of it. Terry Johnson, however, wants a very big thing to be made of it. At this point, he throws all these disparate elements up into the air and lets them land higgledy-piggledy on the stage to let everyone fight it out in the manner of a live Twitter spat. The rest of the play is an experiment in seeing how far you can take the mickey out of transphobia, and questions how long is it funny to do so before it starts getting uncomfortable.

Sex PartyAnswer: not long. It falls to Broadway and Hollywood star Timothy Hutton, in his London stage debut (so bizarre that he should have chosen this play for this significant step in his career), as the American businessman Jeff, in what often feels to be a very stilted performance, to bombard Lucy with offensive, intrusive and crass questioning about her right to call herself a woman; goaded on by the almost equally offensive beliefs and asides of his Russian wife Magdalena, whom I think is meant to be a humorous character but comes across way off the mark.

Alex and CamillaCan you write a play examining transphobia? Of course you can. But this isn’t it. It doesn’t contain sufficiently robust conversations or plot development; in fact there were a couple of lengthy and excruciatingly dull sequences – one where Magdalena likens herself to a butterfly, another where there is a pointless conversation about whether people like dogs. The play lacks the required delicacy and integrity to manage its own sensitive subject matter, and whatever humour there is misses its spot so that the audience is reduced to squirming in their seats. There’s even a short scene at the end of the play that explains what has happened to some of the characters some months later, as if we cared. It was very noticeable how the energy of the audience members had been hugely sapped as we all slunk out at the end,Sex Party with no one quite daring to say WTF did we just see? – but definitely thinking it.

A wasted opportunity? Yes. A tasteless evening of deliberate provocation without anything to back it up? Also yes. Hurrah for the return of the Menier Chocolate Factory, but let this play die a quiet death and never be spoken of again. Two stars is generous, but it’s a proficient production.

Production photos by Alastair Muir

Two Disappointing for Anything More

 

Review – The Deep Blue Sea, Festival Theatre, Chichester, August 20th 2011

Chichester Festival TheatreOur second helping of Rattigan last Saturday was the much acclaimed “The Deep Blue Sea”, originally produced in 1952 in a run that lasted 513 performances. This was a time when Rattigan’s career was really riding high, and in fact many commentators think this is his best play. In “Rattigan’s Nijinsky”, with which we matinéed earlier, Rattigan says “my women are women, and they’re bloody well-written ones”. Hester Collyer, of whom we see a very turbulent day in a rather depressing life, is probably the epitome of this statement. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, the play starts with her failed gassing suicide attempt and ends with her again turning the gas on but this time merely to light the fire. The character progression prompted Mrs Chrisparkle to announce that the play was a supreme statement of optimism. I just found it hard to get past the sadness that Hester wanted to commit suicide.

The Deep Blue SeaWhat is notable about this production is the way it faithfully represents the 1950s and presents that rather dark age in a completely ungimmicky and unembellished way. If you look at the photo of the 1952 set, it’s virtually identical to the set at Chichester. The main difference is that the gas fire is now downstage so that Hester more or less has to look the front stalls in the eye when she turns the fire on, whereas before it was more discreetly positioned against the upstage wall. The furnishings are practical rather than comfortable; the costumes reflect the repressed and impoverished surroundings. Philip Franks the director has adhered to the three-act format – morning, afternoon and evening of this rather enormous day – and not caved in to the modern desire for the symmetrical structure of one central interval. You feel as though this is exactly how this play would have been presented sixty years ago.

Amanda RootYou must draw your own conclusions at to the precise reason for Hester’s suicide attempt, but her two options for bliss are current companion Freddie, who was probably once a bit of a wartime hero but is now an idle drunk, and previous husband William, who is willing to accept her back, but as a possession rather than because of love. Amanda Root’s Hester is brave, calm, sometimes in control, often in agonies of despair. As the two men interact with her you see her formulating her views on them, shoring herself up for the future, and gaining strength from every resolve she makes. It’s a very good performance; tugging at the heartstrings at the right times whilst maintaining whatever dignity she can muster as a failed suicider.

John HopkinsJohn Hopkins is Freddie; another good performance combining the roguish charm that presumably first attracted Hester with an irascible post-war self-disappointment which has resulted in his becoming a waster. In the RAF he had been a dashing test pilot; with the benefit of hindsight you would now consider him a prime candidate for Gulf War Syndrome or a possible beneficiary of Help for Heroes. There were times in the first act when I felt John Hopkins rushed and garbled his lines a little – so much so that I found some of his speeches a bit hard to follow. And that’s before the character had had too much to drink. Still he very much looked the part and the agonies that Freddie feels came across as real and disturbing.

Anthony CalfAt the other end of the social spectrum, Anthony Calf’s Sir William Collyer is the embodiment of buttoned-up stiff-upper-lippishness, his ultra-respectability in the rather slovenly surroundings effectively suggesting that their two lives are long past the chance of converging. When he offers to take her back, pointing out that she is devaluing herself by staying with Freddie, there is barely any increase the warmth of his voice, and you know that it’s not a question of love. It’s another very effective performance; I only know Anthony Calf as Strickland in TV’s New Tricks, and I just got a sneaking suspicion that he feels comfortable playing rather cold, authoritarian figures. Was the whole role just a little too easy for him?

Encouraged by the slightly mysterious Mr (Don’t call me Doctor) Miller who attends to her medical needs, Hester’s decision to let both men go their separate ways and to live her life alone is the big positive step at the end of the play. However, despite its forward-looking conclusion, it’s not the kind of play where you bounce out of the auditorium at the end and click your heels jauntily on the way to the car park. It’s a deep, thoughtful and moving play, and this production gives it the full respect it deserves.

I don't believe it!Celebrity news: whilst I nipped to the Gents, Mrs Chrisparkle queued to pre-order interval drinks, and in line in front of her was none other than Richard Wilson. That’s twice we’ve been in the same audience as him. Naturally when she told me later I had to let rip an “I Don’t Believe It”, which is the ordained form of response whenever his name is mentioned. One last piece of advice – if you pre-order tea and coffee for the interval, by the time you get to drink it, it’s cold. Stick to the Chenin Blanc in future.