THE SEX PARTY at the Menier Chocolate Factory
“Despite everything, the performances are – individually and collectively – quite wonderful”
What exactly is Terry Johnson saying in “The Sex Party”? It is probably the biggest question being asked as the audience leave the Menier Chocolate Factory, but the answer lies at the far end of a very circuitous route, littered with the roadkill of dozens of other debates – some bigger, some smaller, some old and some new. If Johnson had the answer, we would probably be watching a shorter play, but we would also be witnessing the premier of something ground-breaking, brave and unprecedented. As it stands, though, Johnson’s writing, whilst being wonderfully sharp, gives itself too many challenges.
But there is one question that pulls focus from all the others. Johnson has (semi) joked in interviews that this play runs the risk of him getting himself “cancelled”. And he has already confessed to losing friends – not because of the subject matter but because of the new vocabulary and attitudes he has had to adjust to and adopt. The characters in the drama have similar fallings out. Honestly. Is this progress?
Like Mike leigh’s “Abigail’s Party”, there is more than way to look at “The Sex Party”. We can recoil from the cringe-worthy pretension of the faux pas and twitter-feed platitudes, or we can see it as a portrait of individual and marital unhappiness. Unfortunately, the focus is bound to fall onto the former, which leaves the cast with a much harder job. Despite everything, the performances are – individually and collectively – quite wonderful.
Alex (Jason Merrells) and his young girlfriend Hetty (Molly Osborne) are hosting their first sex party. Osborne gives a standout portrayal of the submissive liberal – one who excuses coercion if it can be seen to be a personal choice. The party guests are trawled from the internet or chance meetings, with the exception of Alex’s old flame Gilly (Lisa Dawn) and her tetchy, jealous husband Jake (John Hopkins). Jeff (a wonderfully gruff, outspoken and debauched Timothy Hutton) barges onto the scene with a rich presence we outwardly resent while secretly finding his offensiveness funny. Magdalena, his Russian trophy wife (Amanda Ryan) is in tow, upstaging him – and everyone else – with her ludicrous and laughable opinions. (They say that many a true word is spoken in jest). Enter cool and aware Camilla (Kelly Price) with posh-but-dim, blond-haired buffoon Tim (an impressive Will Barton who occasionally channels another prominent posh-but-dim, blond-haired buffoon). The elephant in the room is Lucy (Pooya Mohseni), a transgender woman who throws a spanner into the works, sets the cat among the pigeons, and generally throws every other metaphor and cliché into the mix.
Mohseni doesn’t enter until the end of Act One. Up until then the piece can be enjoyed as a kind of alternative kitchen sink drama. Although it is a beautifully crafted kitchen sink in Tim Shortall’s stunning set that depicts a stylish Islington fitted kitchen. They are all in the kitchen at this party, only occasionally retreating offstage into the lounge for some staggered and brief sex. Conversation is awkward and the debates more varied than in the second half. It is clear, though, that Johnson is poking fun at the characters and not the subjects they are discussing. This is an important point, and one that is so often missed.
After interval the tone darkens, but narrows its focus. But this could well be the brilliant purpose of the writing. At one point, Lisa Dawn – who gives us a show stealing performance throughout – laments the fact that her own issues are completely overlooked and overshadowed by the subjects that have bulldozed themselves into the collective and confused consciousness. Mohseni, the flagship of self-identity in this piece, does her best to moderate the argument with poise and a coolness that seems to be telling us that it really shouldn’t matter.
“The Sex Party” is putting its head above the parapet. It is certain to be knocked down. It deals with prejudice, but the irony is that the same prejudices will inform people’s perception of the play before they have even seen it. Which is a shame. Yes, it could be pruned somewhat, and have fewer non-sequiturs and tangents, but Johnson’s writing is as acute and observant as ever; and often funny.
Reviewed on 16th November 2022
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Alastair Muir
Previously reviewed at this venue: