'The Sex Party' review — a limp and confusing play suffers from questionable stereotyping
It’s wonderful to welcome back, after a period of refurbishment, the Menier Chocolate Factory and a season of programming that includes a long-overdue sighting of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures this time next year. So it’s something of a surprise that its reopening venture is a new play from the veteran writer-director Terry Johnson that feels at least one draft away from completion, if not more. As it is, The Sex Party is, well, quite limp.
Johnson, as director, staged the Menier revival some while back of La Cage aux Folles, which transferred in triumph to the West End and Broadway. But he seems stymied by what to do with his own bluntly titled play, which suggests the swingers-themed 1997 movie The Ice Storm as it might look rewritten by Alan Ayckbourn or Mike Leigh and updated to accommodate the zeitgeist of the here and now.
The Iranian American actor and trans activist Pooya Mohseni arrives late in the first act to extend the discussion into contentious modern-day realms that could have been pulled directly from Twitter, with JK Rowling getting a predictable shout-out in the often-sententious second act. (John Updike, who trawled comparable terrain in print, is referenced, too.)
An eclectic cast further includes Beckett specialist Lisa Dwan, here looking very glam indeed, and onetime Oscar winner Timothy Hutton to play several of the guests at the carnal gathering of the title.
The location is an inviting Islington home beautifully designed by Tim Shortall, whose set is one of the genuine achievements of a wayward night and rewards closer inspection following the performance: notice, for instance, an attention to detail that extends into the wings – areas most playgoers won’t see from their seats but that make for delightful post-show viewing as you exit.
In full view is a poster of the iconic Fellini film La Dolce Vita, whose title couldn’t be more ironic given the far-from-dolce goings-on that soon transpire in the kitchen; such rumpy-pumpy as there is happens unseen in the living room nearby.
The host is Alex (Jason Merrells), who some while back fancied Dwan’s barbed Gilly but has in the meantime settled down with the far-younger Hetty (Molly Osborne), a free spirit who can’t wait for the frolics to start. Gilly arrives alongside her husband, Jake (John Hopkins), who before long is on bare-chested view for most of the night: Dwan and Hopkins are defined by an acidulous banter that might be profitably revisited if this address ever turns its attentions to, say, Noel Coward or Edward Albee.
Along for the bumpy ride are the bumptious Tim, a Boris Johnson-lookalike played by an actor, Will Barton, who in fact starred in a Jonathan Maitland play about BoJo at north London’s Park Theatre: as typecasting goes, Barton’s groove is certainly an unusual one.
An apology-prone ageing hippie with a fondness for the drug MDMA, Tim arrives in seemingly subservient thrall to an inclusivity-obsessed girlfriend, Camilla (musicals actress Kelly Price, sporting thigh-high boots), who is caustic and not much else.
Far too much, by contrast, is the overripe Magdalena (Amanda Ryan, replacing the originally announced Amanda Donohoe), a mouthy Russian who must be one of the more insultingly conceived characters to appear on a London stage this year. She is tethered to the older, deeply irksome American, himself at times bare-chested and played by the authentically American Hutton, whose choice of this play for a London stage debut is genuinely bewildering.
Mohseni’s coolly elegant Lucy at least shifts the conversation away from jokes about the Tooting Lido and broadsides aimed in the direction of the Saatchi Gallery, only to mire the play in a ticker-tape parade of hot-button topics that made me briefly nostalgic for the more innocent theatrical era of No Sex Please, We’re British.
It’s actually not surprising that, notwithstanding some coital breathiness heard offstage near the start, sex itself barely features in The Sex Party. Anyone expecting an evening of vicarious fun will find instead a catalogue of concerns embracing “textbook transphobia” one minute and cis-male self-definition the next. (Penis size is on the menu, as well.) You leave marvelling at the design and wondering quite what it is there to serve, beyond suggesting the participants as candidates for couple’s counselling in a sequel we don’t need to see.
The Sex Party is at the Menier Chocolate Factory through 7 Jan. 2023. Book The Sex Party tickets on London Theatre.
Photo credit: The Sex Party (Photo by Alastair Muir)
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