Review by Daz Gale
After a short period of closure for refurbishment, The Menier Chocolate Factory is back open and home to a world premiere that might raise a few eyebrows… amongst other things. The goal for The Sex Party is to surprise, shock and entertain. Let’s just say shocking might be the right word.
Written and directed by Terry Johnson, The Sex Party is set in a house in Islington where four couples come together (literally) for a, you guessed it, sex party. All is going well until a ninth person arrives… and that is where the real narrative of this play rears its ugly head.
The first act focuses on the four couples meeting and interacting as they engage in various levels of comfort at the situation not all of them are used to. This leads to some amusing conversations as contrasting personalities and opinions clash. It all plods along rather slowly though but, apart from being rather tasteless in its wording, is fairly inoffensive enough. This is all foreplay in preparation for the main event though, and when act one reaches its climax, that’s when the whole thing unravels.
Act one ends with the arrival of a trans woman called Lucy (Pooya Mohseni) who is outright questioned on her identity in a “cliffhanger” that picks up in act two. The bulk of act two is then spent questioning her in what is some of the most mean-spirited and revolting writing I have ever had the misfortune of witnessing. In the right hands, this could have had the potential to challenge attitudes on trans people and combat transphobia. Instead, it plays right into their hands with much of the material used for laughs. One particularly hideous line raises the topic of JK Rowling and asks “Are you on her side… or Harry Potters?” showing a real lack of understanding for the repercussions these attitudes can have on the world and seem to be in place solely to make the audience laugh, rather than challenge their own perceptions.
The whole thing is rather uncomfortable to watch. It’s hard to believe you are watching a world premiere as the attitudes expressed in this play feel like something that would have been outdated decades ago. I’d like to think there is no malicious intent with this inclusion and that Terry Johnson didn’t mean to cause harm with these dangerous tropes (homosexuals are another easy target in a line that made me hold my head in my hands) but the whole thing feels like it could have been written by Graham Linehan.
Remarkably, Pooya Mohseni manages to combat the terrible dialogue with some fine acting in a beautifully authentic portrayal of a character who is never taken as seriously in the play as she deserves. In fact, the acting is one of the only things that redeems The Sex Party from being a total disaster. Other highlights among the nine-strong cast are Will Barton who appears to be channelling Boris Johnson in the comic (though problematic) Tim, Lisa Dwan as Gilly and Molly Osborne as Hetty.
The problem with the characters is in the way they are written – relatively two dimensional with no sense who any of them are. One character, Camilla (played the best she can by Kelly Price) becomes the closest thing to an ally Lucy has, regularly correcting the offensive things other characters are saying. However, this is undone when she comes in later in act two screaming “You sucked her cock” and telling Lucy she can’t see her as a woman. If this is meant to signify the difficulties in people who claim to be politically correct, all it comes across as is poorly written. Similarly, Gilly (Lisa Dwan) seems to go from one extreme to the other, telling Lucy she has no right to call herself a woman, only to put her arm around her later. It feels like the intent of these characters was to represent tropes in society – instead, they are poorly written caricatures that are completely jarring in their inconsistency.
There are a couple of strong points going for The Sex Party as few and far between as these may be. The set design by Tim Shortall sees a beautifully Islington home meticulously created with careful detailed including a clever glimpse at the outside area. Like all the best parties, the action here all takes place in the kitchen so it is down to sound from John Leonard to provide the noises from the living room.
The problem with The Sex Party lies solely with the writing. Whereas Terry Johnson has had many an acclaimed play in the past, something has gone seriously wrong in this huge misfire. The damaging attitudes displayed here aren’t the only problem, though any lack of a resolve down to the unsatisfactory final line doesn’t do it any favours. It’s the lack of depth to any of the characters, some absolutely cringeworthy one liners and up to date references that feel very unnaturally shoehorned in. You never quite get the believability of these characters and are always made acutely aware these are actors performing their lines to the best of their ability but there is only so much you can do when the writing isn’t there to begin with.
I always hope to make my reviews “constructive, not cruel” but that has been a real challenge to do in a show that appears to be cruel in itself. My constructive criticism would be to think about the damage putting on a show like this can do to people particularly if you yourself show a lack of understanding for the situations you are describing. This offensively shocking show should be left as a one night stand not worthy of revisiting.
The Sex Party plays at Menier Chocolate Factory until January 7th 2023. Tickets from https://www.menierchocolatefactory.com
Photos by Alastair Muir