The tiny Menier Chocolate Factory’s considerable reputation lies with its dazzling musicals and close relationship with the late Stephen Sondheim. But it’s also a fact that it’s always been a big fan of aggressively unfashionable sex comedies.
That’s not quite what Terry Johnson’s new play ‘The Sex Party’ is. But it perhaps explains why this bewilderingly chaotic sex… dramedy?… has ended up reopening the pint-sized Southwark powerhouse after it closed for a six-month refurbishment.
Unsurprisingly, ‘The Sex Party’ is about a sex party, specifically one thrown by suave middle-aged Islington-dweller Alex (Jason Merrells) and his bubbly young girlfriend Hetty (Molly Osborne). In attendance is his brittle old flame Gilly (Lisa Dwan) and her dull husband Jake (John Hopkins), plus preposterous cartoon Russian Magdalena (Amanda Ryan) and her awful older American boyfriend Jeff (Timothy Hutton), and finally the vituperatively right-on Camilla (Kelly Price) and her dopey, drug-addled partner Tim (Will Barton).
A baffling use of a decent cast’s time
There is probably a sensitive and interesting drama on the subject of what exactly drives a relatively substantial number of middle-aged couples to experiment with infidelity. And for a while it looks like that might be what ‘The Sex Party’ is aiming for. Smartly, there’s not much hot couple action on stage: that all takes place in the lounge, with the play set in the kitchen, in which Alex spends most of the first half brooding. It’s increasingly apparent that he’s hung up on one-that-got-away Gilly. But his midlife crisis feels underexplored, especially when the play abruptly switches tack with the arrival of Pooya Mohseni’s Lucy.
She is a trans woman, although Alex didn’t realise this when he invited her to the party. When trans actor Mohseni turned up just before the interval I was braced for it to all get horribly bad taste.
In fact, Lucy is a decent enough role for Mohseni, and Johnson gives her an elegantly philosophical turn of phrase that seems to elevate her above the banalities of the others. Nonetheless, she abruptly becomes an object of discussion, which feels wildly crass in and of itself. I’m extremely unclear as to why Johnson thought that one whole hour into the play we’d suddenly be interested in what any of these characters thought about trans people. They’ve not been set up as so right-on that their awkwardness around Lucy seems shockingly hypocritical. It’s basically just weird when we suddenly hear Alex muttering awkwardly about JK Rowling, because it constitutes such a wild tangent from the limited focus of his character thus far.
Like I said, there’s probably a genuinely thoughtful play about swinging somewhere in all this; I don’t personally think a cis playwright penning a piece about the British middle classes’ attitude towards trans people is a totally illegitimate idea if done respectfully; and you know, fuck it, it could have just been a dumb sex comedy that would have almost certainly found its audience.
Instead it gestures clumsily at all three and comes away as a baffling use of a decent cast’s time. Johnson is a veteran writer and director who has done some great stuff in his day, but ‘The Sex Party’ feels at least three drafts away from knowing what it wants to be, let alone actually being any cop.