A PVC backdrop. Deep red sofa covered in plastic. A tray with two needles sitting poised for action. Banging music rings in your ears. The stage is set for a dark and disturbing evening that will question where pleasure ends and pain begins. A queer “American Psycho”? A messy murder mystery? The show in question is “Sex/Crime”, Alexis Gregory’s startlingly original new play returning to London at the Soho Theatre.
In thickly lyrical prose, “A” (Jonny Woo) and “B” (Gregory) meet in a mysterious room in a city in turmoil. Paying good money to have famous gay murders recreated on his body, “B” is prepared to be submissive, to give himself up to death and pleasure. “A”, offering him punches and slaps for a pre-arranged price, is clinical in his approach. But talk turns to “Him”, to the world outside, to love, to passion. “A”’s professional demeanour breaks down, and it isn’t long before the men’s roles take a surprising turn.
Woo gives an authoritative performance as “A”, his size bringing a unique presence to the low-ceilinged Upstairs theatre at Soho. Gregory is his ideal counterpart. Built with the shoulders of a bodybuilder, “B” is a high-pitched Londoner, almost camp, his movements precise and words even more so. Together, they make an excellent double act. The comedy rarely stops, and the references are topical. At one point Woo references EU regulations on breaks: “I’m holding on to those as long as I can” he notes, witheringly.
Directed by Robert Chevara, the two figures dance around each other, playing with distance and proximity with shocking effect. Movement is precise, pointed and poised. If things seem a little hyper-active, it matches the high octane, high adrenaline situation (not to mention all the drugs). Rocco Venna’s set leaves a strong impression in the imagination and Mike Robertson’s lighting design sees an almost clinical light beam up at the actors’ faces throughout. It’s certainly unsettling and gives those blackouts an added touch of menace.
The final third was where I started to wane, and the script seemed to lose a little bit of focus. What seemed grounded in a specific, yet unfamiliar, reality, falls away, making the final moments of twisting and turning a little less potent. Gorgeous as the finale of montages is, I wish it ended as punchy as it started.
This audience was in bits though, and hung on every moment. With strong leads and an even stronger sense of style, “Sex/Crime” is certainly an enjoyable spectacle. Dark comedy drips from the ceiling like PVC sheets and the energy on stage is palpable and infectious. As a new piece of writing, Gregory’s voice shines and is certainly one to keep an eye out for. “Riot Act” is still one of my favourite shows in recent years, and I can only wait with anticipation as to what original idea strikes Gregory next. In the meantime, do check out this explosive and surprising show while it’s here.
“this annual festival is a joyous celebration of the scene in all its camp, disruptive naughty glory”
This is the third year for Jonny Woo’s queer, sexy, ribald, irreverent take on this most British of formats, and it’s clear that this fabulous evening has now rightly taken its place in London’s alternative social calendar. London now leads the world in queer performance, and this annual festival is a joyous celebration of the scene in all its camp, disruptive naughty glory. Jonny is the perfect host – witty, warm and salacious in equal measure – and Julian Smith’s costumes are delicious throughout. It is a long evening, at four hours, but the acts come fast and furious and are well-balanced enough that time flies by. This reviewer has to confess to being utterly disabled by laughter on more than one occasion – a treat indeed.
The whole show is cheerfully sweary from beginning to end, but there is a clear tonal arc to proceedings, and the second half is significantly filthier than the first. If you blanch at nudity and overt drug references, this is really not the night for you! After an explosive opening number, which sets the scene for the gender play throughout, the show begins with supremely professional high-camp drag from Myra Dubois. She opens the floodgates for the surge of talent to follow, and it is worth remembering that the energetic silliness of acts such as Garry Starr (Damien Warren-Smith’s brilliant comedy alter-ego), as well as the anarchic scratch-punk world of Christeene and Lucy McCormick, demand a high degree of artistic skill. Similarly, for those who might dismiss Lip Sync, Rhys Hollis’ mind-blowing routine – a fierce, sexy mash-up of Nicky Minaj, Missy Elliott and more – was a lesson in performance precision.
And there are voices too. From Sooz Kempner’s belting rendition of the Chorus Line favourite The Music and the Mirror, to the magnificent surprise of comedienne Jayde Adams’ huge operatic soprano, unleashed after her whip-smart comedy set, to Carla Lippis’ in-your-face and dangerous ‘I’m a Liar’, the Hackney Empire resounded with song throughout the evening. Special mention must also go here to the wondrous Theresa May choir – in splendid voice as well as being eye-wateringly funny. Laughter is nigh on continuous for the duration of the show, and every audience member will come away with highlights. Bourgeois & Maurice’s outrageous and lyrically brilliant take on overpopulation – Babies – and Mawaan Rizwan’s unique blend of song, dance and stand-up were personal favourites.
It is to Woo’s credit that important issues affecting the LGBTQIA+ community were woven in to the show’s glittering fabric – the importance of pronouns, trans equality, femme visibility and female visibility were all part of the tapestry. Equally, the terrific sketch between Le Gateau Chocolat and Adrienne Truscott was an affectionate poke at well-intentioned woke behaviour. The facility for self-parody is the surest sign of confidence, which Jonny Woo and this exceptional line-up exude from their pores. All Hail Their Majesties. Long May They Reign.