Ever wondered what it might be like to peg someone in a camping supplies store at 10am on a Wednesday? This apocalyptic rom-com is a saucy and slippery subversion of the classic radio play, and asks us if sex can make the world a better place. Disenchanted lifestyle blogger and closeted academic Celina Valderrama (Emma Harvie) has to do and review every unmentionable in a new book called The 44 Sex Acts that Will Change your Life. Struggling to find a suitable partner who is up for it, she settles on holier-than-thou eco-activist and office mail boy Alab Delusa (Matt Hardie). Diving headlong into the world of kink together, their frenemy friction might just erupt.
Is there such a thing as maximalist minimalism? Because this show has it in droves. It uses its small cast and a basic but bright and functional set (designed by Trent Suidgeest) to its advantage, with everyone sharing multiple roles – you haven't seen anything until you’ve seen an orgy scene with one person playing two of its participants at once (credit where it's due to Priscilla Doueihy) – and working to create the sound effects.
The aural experience (yes, aural, not oral) is half the fun, but that doesn’t mean that the action is limited to behind a sound desk. With sound design and composition by Steve Toulmin, voices, bodies, crinkled paper and increasingly elaborate props are deployed to hit the right notes. It is a play for the generation who are listening to podcasts non-stop, having dalliances with the hook-up apps, and sharing memes about the means of production. There’s some light audience involvement (of the socially distanced variety, naturally) and some of the silliest slapstick you’ll ever see (someone shakes hands with a strap-on, naturally). Veteran actor Keith Robinson even brings a touch of Rocky Horror energy as the deep-voiced narrator, weaving in grand tales of apocalypse and rebirth that slowly wind their way into the action that is playing out on stage.
The tinsel backdrop, smushed rockmelon and growing colony of plastic frogs is all a front for a deceptively clever script, however. This play comes from the razor-sharp pen of David Finnigan (Kill Climate Deniers), who works at the intersection of science, art and activism. Much like his hyper-topical and provocatively-titled debut (Alan Jones’ blood was boiling) this play is equally of the moment with its dissection of the zeitgeist. 44 Sex Acts lampoons capitalism, click-bait journalism, girl boss culture, wellness influencers, predatory self help gurus, end even eco warriors – in spite of the foreboding ecological message at its heart. After starring in the play’s initial run in the Belvoir St Theatre basement, Sheridan Harbridge (Prima Facie) returns to direct this outing for Sydney Festival.
The so-called sex guru behind the book (played with brilliant comedic timing and impressive core strength by Rebecca Massey) talks a lot of marketing spin about primal urges, but that actually taps into a more solemn truth, that humankind is still very much part of the food chain. Flanagan also draws an incisive parallel between the tenets of BDSM and Marxism – the proletariat (or, the submissive) is the true holder of power, and when that primal power is realised (or, once class consciousness is achieved) the bourgeoisie (or the master) better watch their back and listen out for the safe word.
The play is also self aware enough to take note of the deeply heteronormative lens of the book from which its multitude of sex acts are ripped, and also dips a toe (and other appendages) into exploring the fluidity of sexual desire. Despite all the x-rated content, it never feels too seedy – which is a triumph considering the amount of fruit involved. Running at 85 minutes without interval, the show doesn’t overstay its welcome, though some transitions could stand to be less jarring.
The characters are not overly complex, the plot points are often ridiculous, and many of the sex acts from the book seem logistically improbable – but in this context, it all seems to fall together in a happy heap. And a show like this one is also a vital proof of concept. The best theatre you’ll see isn’t necessarily forged on the biggest stages, nor does a show need a big budget to be bombastic or to have terribly earnest storylines and deeply nuanced characters in order to be powerful. 44 Sex Acts in One Week is a testament to all of the above, and also proof that nobody even needs to get naked to put on a titilating show that’s all about doing the deed – you just need a bulk order of fresh fruit, and some resourceful sound effects.
The actors share great chemistry and the joy and momentum of the theatrical spectacle is stripped bare to its primal beating heart – with some bells and whistles thrown in that wouldn’t be out of place in a campy burlesque act. And if nothing else, you’ll never look at a slice of watermelon the same way again.