THE SEX PARTY – ⭐️⭐️⭐️- the Menier is back, and so is Terry Johnson: this’ll get people talking

Will Barton and Kelly Price, photograph by Alastair Muir

THE SEX PARTY

Written and directed by Terry Johnson

Menier Chocolate Factory until 7th January 2023

https://www.menierchocolatefactory.com/Online/default.asp

Terry Johnson has an interesting history of promising his audience a certain kind of play then delivering something quite unexpected: Dead Funny sounded like a classic, if macabre, farce but turned out to be a devastating examination of a marriage in crisis, while Insignificance featured a number of 20th century cultural and intellectual icons and it’s key scene had Marilyn Monroe explain the theory of relativity to Einstein using balloons as props. Hysteria saw a chamber comedy about Freud and Dali explode into a wild surrealist extravaganza. True to form, The Sex Party -his first new play in four years and the reopening production for a refurbished Menier Chocolate Factory- appears from it’s title and marketing to be something salacious and naughty, but actually proves to be a surprisingly astute critique of open relationships and the emotional and human costs of a situation where not everyone is reading off of the same hymn sheet. It’s also not very sexy, although I suspect that is partly the point. This isn’t Johnson at his best, to be honest, but it’ll certainly get people talking.

Set in the kitchen at a swingers party in Islington, this is essentially a discussion piece that puts nine contrasting individuals in a room and has them grapple with, well, almost everything really: jealousy, gender, personal boundaries, yearning for what might have been, political correctness …oh and sex of course, although anybody seeing this show to view nudity and onstage “action” will be left disappointed. Johnson’s gift for literate, often painfully funny dialogue remains, as does his wry, almost absurdist take on allegedly civilised social conventions: there’s an amusing moment when Jason Merrell’s party host Alex bolts, mid-orgy, into the living room in high dudgeon and armed with salt because somebody has spilt red wine on an expensive rug.

That aforementioned verbal elegance is shot through with moments of quite breathtaking crudity and even cruelty though. A lot of what comes out of the character’s mouths may be disturbingly unpalatable but most of it sounds authentic enough, although whether one would choose to spend over two hours in the company of some of these people is another matter. The script becomes less successful as it interrogates the boundaries of “wokeness”, the catalyst for which is the arrival of the stunning Lucy, a trans woman played with a fascinating mixture of aloofness and vulnerability by Pooya Mohseni. There is an extended scene in the second act where a number of really offensive opinions (think, if you must, transphobic, homophobic and just plain crass) are bandied about from some of the more unreconstructed partygoers. It’s pretty ugly stuff and no doubt indicative of the way many people sadly still think, and while I’m not suggesting for one moment that theatre shouldn’t explore the uncomfortable and/or offensive, Johnson’s characters here morph into mouthpieces for a bewilderingly eclectic selection of viewpoints rather than fully fledged human beings, and there’s nothing that even this fine bunch of actors can do to ameliorate that.

Jason Merrells makes host Alex into a genuinely likeable figure, and Molly Osborne sparkles as his enthusiastically frisky younger girlfriend, who finds one character’s scepticism about the merits of owning a dog far more unacceptable than any of the coital excesses going on in her own living room. Lisa Dwan and John Hopkins find real firepower in a fractured couple at their first sex party, and whose relationship looks set to change forever after the revelations of a single night. Kelly Price is hilarious but also entirely convincing as haughty, intimidatingly “right on” Camilla who comes to realise that her boundaries are not necessarily where she thought they were, and Will Barton is great fun as her drug-addled man-child boyfriend. Oscar winner Timothy Hutton invests wealthy eccentric Jeff with just the right amount of blunt insensitivity and blandly masked nastiness, while Amanda Ryan goes impressively for broke as his super-brash trophy wife, who seems to have been written as Russian solely so that she can toss out unspeakable opinions without intending to offend anyone (although she invariably does). Either way, Ryan’s roaring Russian accent sounds spot on. Mohseni is gorgeous and makes Lucy into probably the most sympathetic figure at the party.

While it has much to enjoy, particularly the note-perfect performances and Tim Shortall’s beautiful and astonishingly detailed Islington townhouse kitchen set, The Sex Party feels like a play that needed at least one more draft before being exposed to audiences and indeed to critical opinion. The music choices are a little confusing… although the piece is set in the present day the playlist seems stuck irrevocably in the 1970s, but then again so do some of the attitudes presented. Ultimately, The Sex Party is an unruly beast, chock full of opinions, tropes, issues and characters that have the unmistakable tang of truth while only fitfully achieving full theatrical life, despite the efforts of a stellar cast.

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