Theatre Review: The Prudes, Royal Court ‘Hilarious, But Not Without Issues’

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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

Production Team:
Writer/Director: Anthony Neilson
Designer: Fly Davis
Lighting Designer: Chahine Yavroyan
Sound Designer: Nick Powell

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1 comment

  1. Posted by Anthony Neilson, at Reply

    Thank you for taking the time to review THE PRUDES, Victoria, and thank you for being honest about your response. For what it’s worth, I don’t think you come across like Mary Whitehouse at all. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to take a moment to respond to your criticisms so you will understand my thinking.

    The use of BUMP ‘N’ GRIND is ironic, to my mind, and not simply because it’s a “sexy” song introducing a couple who are having troubles with sex. I am completely aware of the R.Kelly situation and obviously those are horrible events. Nonetheless, the song still exists and, in my opinion, is still a pretty good track. When I hear it, I have to balance those two opposing feelings against each other – pleasure and revulsion – and that’s a rather complex mix that seems to me to perfectly encapsulate what THE PRUDES is about. On some level, the play is asking: In moving ahead, towards a hopefully far more sexually balanced future, what is it that we want to keep? What is it that we want to throw away? How has the meaning of things changed? Can we allow those things a new context or do we want to airbrush them from history? Note as well that we finish the play with Streisand’s HE TOUCHED ME, a sweet, romantic song whose lyrics suddenly feel entirely sinister in the modern context. These bookends are not accidental. Some will laugh when hearing the R.Kelly song but it is not there solely for “a giggle”. If that was all I’d wanted, any number of songs would have been just as good.

    Regarding Jonjo’s character, there is nothing in the writing that asks for, or compels, sympathy. In fact, he is a creature of monstrous narcissism who – despite ostensibly wanting to change – does some pretty awful things, all of which serve to obstruct the advances he claims to support. Jonjo is, of course, a charming performer; but there, again, is the point. If some part of you forgives him for what he’s doing, that’s something it might be interesting to examine in yourself, rather than suggesting that I’ve manipulated you into it; or that the play itself is espousing his viewpoint. It’s not. It’s a pretty vicious assassination of the male liberal type that claims to want progress – wants to be seen as progressive – and yet is petulantly digging his heels in. This is the focus of the play and the satire: I like to think that it is cautionary, on some level; even the most well-meaning of men may find (perhaps unconscious) strategies to protect their privilege.

    As with most of my plays, I am not attempting to make any Statement. I am simply asking questions and trying to set up difficult emotional contradictions within the audience members. I’ve got no answers. The conflict, the debate, any kind of change – these must occur within the viewer, outside of the theatre. I can’t even begin to provide them.

    I do think it is a little unfair to claim that Jess has no nuance; and it is certainly wrong to say that this is not addressed. I made a decision – as a middle-aged man – that it wasn’t my place to try and represent the female viewpoint on this issue. That would be disingenuous; not to mention presumptuous and downright foolish. As I’ve said elsewhere, this play has to take its place in the context of a wider body of work on the subject. Ella Hickson has a great play on about this subject and several more are in the works. It’s an accident of my process that this has come out of the gates earlier because I am able to be more immediately reactive.

    But of course I knew that would mean the male character would take up more than his fair share of oxygen and, again, that seemed formally apposite. That is what the play is about. In fact. Jess exists as the identification point for the audience here. She presents the only real intellectual points made in the play. Her aim is quite straightforward. Her experience with her Father, which you don’t mention – in some sense the emotional climax of the show – is pretty much a lesson in nuance. She literally could not tell that story if she was allowed no nuance. Yes, her part is less showy, but if you carefully consider what she says and does, I believe she is, in fact, a far more nuanced and complex character than Jonjo’s.

    There is an element of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” in tackling this subject. If Jess had been portrayed differently – without a clear need, purely emotional (like Jimmy), the watched and not the watcher – would that be so much better? I decided not. And I did not wish to appropriate women’s experience and pass it off as my own.

    THE PRUDES is clearly a play/satire about the male response to the #metoo movement. That is really all it is. It could not and should not be a definitive statement on these issues. As ever, in criticism, one has to judge the work for what it is, not for what one wishes it had been. I like to think I have a good track record in writing plays with women at their centre but this is not one of them.

    Anyway, I hope that elucidates my approach, even if it doesn’t make this the play you wanted to see. Hopefully that will be along in time.

    Anthony Neilson