FringeReview UK 2018
Anthony Neilson writes and directs a script that only gels in the last preview. Fly Davis’ set revels in this almost Seventies parody of a sex therapy boudoir, down to two cushions on a carpet, no bed. Nick Powell pumps horribly apposite songs arranged by Amanda Wilkin. Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting darkens counsel beautifully. Gina Lee’s costumes erupt in full game-show glare.
So they’ll finally have sex after fourteen month celibacy in front of us, the invited audience. And why that is will take a bit longer. Warning us the play might not contain graphic sex was a note written before a late devised moment when in a Wonder Woman suit … Anthony Neilson’s take on sex and the comedies around nervous liberal male versions of it at least edges towards the Hashtag Me Too moment. Typically, script and ending has only just been rewritten. Another reason why Neilson directs as well as writes.
Even audience seats are softly lined with beige pink, with the whole Royal Court Upstairs Theatre plushed in pile and behind a platform with two breakfast stools with a table and glasses of wine, a kind of religious screen. Above dangle a nurse’s uniform and some curious piping that never descends at all. That’s the dry ice, with drum rolls, and provocatively R Kelly’s Bump n’Grind for an introit.
Jonjo O’Neill’s James (Jimmy’s out since Savile) and Sophie Russell’s Jess peep out. ‘We’re not prudish’ protests James at his label. ‘Well I am a bit..’ Jess ripostes. It’s about the one time The Prudes earns its right as a title. The rest is sheer nerves. Neilson’s returned to the sexual arena he explored between 1993 and about 2002 – with a strangulated twist. They’re late thirties, professional DINKYs, no stresses to stop sex. They’re going to have sex tonight, Jess – particularly frustrated – insists; or it’s over. ‘You can leave at any time’ the pair insist, having hooked everyone with more narrative than erotic promise.
Fly Davis’ set revels in this almost Seventies parody of a sex therapy boudoir, down to two cushions on a carpet, no bed. Nick Powell pumps horribly apposite songs arranged by Amanda Wilkin; as you expect Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting darkens counsel beautifully. There’s a game here: if one person’s spot-lit, it’s a confidence the other can’t hear. But don’t forget if all the lighting’s on… James forgets. Gina Lee’s costumes erupt in full game-show glare.
Neilson’s playing with the fourth wall because for once he’s constructed three recognizable ones in an otherwise unexceptionable, relatively conventional format. Almost.
There’s the chat, the revealing backchat (‘I liked to think of Kevin Spacey – before…’) and the spotlit confessionals each makes to the audience including some personal information about Jess that James swears he’d never divulge. Neilson’s approaching everything from James’ absurdity, the liberal male fear prefaced and punctuated with ‘I’d never..’ and every position on that. Of any male who declares ‘No one hates the patriarchy more than me’ you know he’s got a problem. Of course I masturbate James confides. And of course you use porn, I’ve no trouble with that, Jess asserts.
It’s clear too James’ hang-ups stem from a double flipped male insecurity trying too hard to adopt a feminist stance: typical refusals like declining Viagra because he hasn’t a problem with imagining any woman but Jess (great start) whereas in fact his prudish? insistence on a natural erection is as it were, unreconstructed. Jess has no problems constructing one for him any which way.
And then – discovering they’ve no condoms and (shock to James) Jess stopped taking the pills months ago – there’s his assertion: he’ll withdraw! That raises the largest laugh of a raucously rocked evening. Till then. Since Jess goes begging around the audience. ‘We won’t judge you’ she assures everyone, hoping someone will root out a crumby condom for them. Throughout, the audience collaborate by nearly falling off their comfy benches at every interaction.
And the Viagra… There’s surprises for James. It leads to the best scenes where James horrified at an erection he fears brought on by Jess’s confiding a very early sexual incident, discovers another Jess secret. Again, each time James asserts his liberal credentials he spectacularly sabotages it by requesting… that’s where Wonder Woman comes in. At a cost though. There’s method acting in it.
Hints of abuse, Jess’s second sexual revelation she defines as non-abusive, show paradoxical intent. It’s James’ inability to accept her explanations whilst ultimately imposing his own, that takes us to classic male control territory. His storm-lamp-in darkness-revelation of Jess’s secret is soon smoked out by her and comically blasted by full lighting. Just as every rationalising narrative James attempts dissolves with a little daylight. Discovering Jess’s greatest secret – James asserts – triggers his impotence. Or her wearing of flip-flops which he doesn’t tell her – till now when he forgets his spotlit fourth wall. ‘It’s fine, I only wore them because they were a freebie from Marie Claire.’ Jess has been withering as it were: now she’s after more than flipping shoes off.
James’ increasingly frantic explanations layer a new controlling obsession, that Jess unknown to herself has to tightrope walk an invisible line of submission to particular fads she doesn’t even know exists. Not long ago they both declared they weren’t into kinks and fetishes. It’s no longer even Before She Met Me syndrome. We’ve seen this before.
Russell and O’Neill relish their humiliated/frustrated roles – O’Neill particularly jittering about as if convinced he’s guilty of something. Russell’s smoothness and utter reasonableness soon ignites beyond staccato irritation points and at one point she can finally abandon the straight act, even if that is of a cat on a carpeted roof. Russell’s furious arc reaches an operatic scena. If Neilson rightly feels more comfortable exploring male absurdity whilst (as he’s written already) leaving much else to women dramatists; it does play to his strengths.
Jess and James aren’t exactly rounded characters, but this is a quasi-game-show, where brilliant half-round personae enact one of the more recent double-binds of recent sexual politics: faux liberalism. Neilson’s piece twists an unexpected root out of recent debates over power and sexual abuse the Royal Court has addressed so consistently. Uniquely Neilson’s made the faintly horrible full-on hilarious.