The Prudes is one of those tricky shows where women in the audience, in particular, are required to overlook a few awkward moments, uneasy representations, and a few missteps from male creatives, in order to fully enjoy what is, genuinely, a laugh-out-loud comedy.
And it’s interesting what this forces upon women critics such as myself because I feel, by pointing out these troublesome bits, I’m being a bit of buzz killer. That I’m some kind of feminist Mary Whitehouse listing the strikes against a play, which I know so many will love and enjoy.
So, at least let’s start with the positives….
My god, The Prudes is funny. It is SO. DAMN. FUNNY. And so much of the plaudits for that must go to Sophie Russell and Jonjo O’Neill who are superb as the couple who sit in front of us, under the bubblegum pink awnings of this brilliantly sleazy 1970s style boudoir (blinding design from Fly Davis, btw) explaining to us what has brought them here, and what they are here to do.
It’s such a great set-up. The audience is small and the area is intimate – but the problems facing this couple are big and intimacy is the one thing they don’t have. For they’ve been together for nine years, but their sex life has gone. Vanished. For fourteen months to be exact. And so they’ve come to this place – which, fascinatingly, is never quite explained – to have sex again in front of us. To give a public demonstration of their commitment and passion.
Only their anguish is a massive hurdle. They simply can’t get down to it. There’s too many issues and their awkwardness is palpable. The removal of the fourth wall is a dream come true as this man and woman drag us into their wrestling with all the familiar issues of mid-life crises, decreasing amounts of sex in long-term relationships, and the perils of passionate sex in this era where discussions about consent and women’s rights are at the fore.
But, of course, for all the humour and attempts at political correctness, and that wonderful reveal of the power dynamics and routines of any relationship, there is something at the heart of this play that is meaningful, about the extent to which the topic of sex is never just superficial but, rather, reveals so much more about our true characters and histories.
Now, focusing a play around a ‘will they, won’t they’ set-up always means that the idea can run out of steam quite quickly. Anthony Neilson cleverly addresses this by running the show at a sharp 75 minutes, which is the perfect running time. But, as I alluded to earlier, I can’t truly say that this show is completely perfect. And that pains me to say.
So, first up… There is no place anymore for R Kelly. None. This play opens with the immediately recognisable beats of Bump-n-Grind, and those very lyrics are included in the dialogue later down the line. And, frankly, I’m amazed that there is any production out there that thinks including this man and this track is OK, and especially one that references abuse in its own dialogue with comments about Saville and Spacey.
Worse, the use of R Kelly here is not ironic but to provoke a laugh. There we are, the audience, waiting for the show to start in this deliberately playful set with its shagpile rugs and baby pink billowing sheets and the first thing we hear, the point that signals the start of the show, is Bump n Grind. We are meant to laugh; it is there to provoke a giggle. Only R Kelly aint funny. He’s a serial abuser on the cusp of finally being exposed for his dozens – DOZENS – of acts of rape and abuse to young girls and women over twenty years, at least.
For a show that is set up as an anguish over politically-correct sex in the post #MeToo era… yikes. This is a mis-step. I have politely asked the Royal Court to reconsider their use of this track in this show. We shall see what their response is. It’ll be interesting to me, though, if they refuse, if they argue the song is integral to the production as, if so, that will really display the extent to which some are tiring of women talking about abuse and harassment.
But look, this happened, and I just parked it in my mind and went on with the rest of the show. And it was wonderful.
Jonjo’s character is such a sweetheart, agonising over his inability to perform on cue, wrestling with his love for his partner versus the extent to which he watches pornography, and even trying to bite down on his requests for playfulness in their sex lives for fear it might not be appropriate. Sophie on the other hand is down for it and, more than this, an ultimatum is quickly made.
I suppose some might find this an interesting challenge as it is usually women who are portrayed as less enthusiastic for sex. And, indeed, society still excuses many affairs that heterosexual men have on the assumption that his partner does not give him what he needs.
This play looks to flip this. I acknowledge that but… I don’t know, I just don’t know… *sigh* You see, I’m kinda over feeling sorry for men. This play is compelling us to feel sorry for Jonjo’s character here. Hell, even Jonjo’s BEAUTIFUL depiction of this insecure man whose own self-worth is wrapped up in his (in)ability to have sex tugs at our heartstrings And you fall under the spell… You laugh along, your heart goes out to him…
But then you come out afterwards. The show sort of mills around your head…. You weigh up the bits you loved and then it hits you – you’ve been manipulated into feeling sorry for men and what they have to contend with in this post-Weinstein era.
Don’t get me wrong, guys, but women are having to deal with much more.
Anthony Neilson is clearly aware of this in some way and tries to address this, even quite directly at times, by dragging in an argument over ‘nuance.’ But as Sophie finds herself reduced to bashing her fella over the head again and again with a pillow shouting, ‘you want nuance?!!’, this suddenly felt a bit Punch and Judy. And we all know where that sits on the spectrum these days of what’s appropriate and what isn’t.
In fact, nuance is the very thing that Sophie’s character is denied. She acknowledges with the internal eye-roll how she has been shoe-horned into the ‘softly softly’ approach with her guy so not to crack his fragile ego. But she is a woman who wants sex and if she can’t get her guy to rekindle their intimacy, they’re over.
That’s a very black-and-white scenario and even when the secrets that Sophie has been hidden are revealed, these are quite traumatic. Again, black and white. Sophie’s character is, in fact, completely denied nuance. She is denied any opportunity to have a sexual history that is simply confusing rather than harrowing.
So anyway… I feel like a bit of a party pooper. And probably someone who has revealed a bit too much in the way of spoilers for the twists and turns in this production.
Yet – and this may surprise you – I would recommend anyone to see this show, I really would. It is damn hard to be this damn funny. Believe me when I say you will enjoy this play. You may even love it, and I would totally get that. But its missteps are entirely indicative of a male lens, which does make this problematic in parts. And that’s a shame.
Royal Court, London, to June 2, 2018.
Tickets from £12.
All production images by Manuel Harlan
Writer/Director: Anthony Neilson
Designer: Fly Davis
Lighting Designer: Chahine Yavroyan
Sound Designer: Nick Powell