“Sex shouldn’t have to feel like homework”
Wanderlust, the new play from Nick Payne opening upstairs at the Royal Court, carries a warning of nudity and scenes of an adult nature. Frankly, having seen the second preview, it smacks of many a play advertising full frontal nudity in order to whip up a few headlines and controversy and hopefully translate it into ticket sales. It has clearly worked here as there’s already limited availability for the entire run but it wouldn’t surprise me if tickets start to become available once word spreads.
The Richards family: Joy and Alan married for 24 years but haven’t had sex for 12 months and their 15 year old son Tim, desperate to get his first hands-on experience of the facts of life. Whilst looking at ways of trying to rescue their relationship, the sexually frustrated Alan has his eye turned by Clare, a colleague who needs comforting after witnessing another teacher pleasuring himself in a classroom after hours; the sexually repressed Joy has her own distraction in the shape of an old flame appearing at her surgery needing treatment for a sensitive matter, but interested in much more and the would-be sexually active Tim turns to his best (female) friend Michelle to show him the ins and outs of sexual congress so that he won’t disappoint an older girl he wants to seduce. As we follow each of them on their journeys, Payne purports to look at the relationship between sex and intimacy and the role each plays in relationships.
It isn’t bad, but it really isn’t anything special either. There’s some humour in there, the opening scene is classic and there’s a fair few witty observations and one-liners throughout, usually around sex or getting naked, but it is paper-thin, really rather dated and plays just like a sitcom on far too many occasions with a ridiculous number of very short scenes and then the occasional monologue from Joy. The cast do their best with the material: Siân Brooke as Clare has a nice line in sarcastic humour and Pippa Haywood has great comic chemistry with Charles Edward’s bumbling Stephen (although seeing him close up further makes one wonder how on earth he got cast as Oberon to Judi Dench’s Titania!) As the sexually curious teenagers Isabella Laughland and James Musgrave have a nice innocence about them, making their storyline curiously old-fashioned.
It just doesn’t feel like anything new is being said here at all, and having set up this dilemma of whether love is a necessary part of sex and vice versa, it never comes to any satisfactory conclusions, avoiding going into the real reasons behind the estrangement between the Richards and in particular Joy’s frigidity. Matters are not helped by the way in which the play meanders to its conclusion. There’s a brief scene featuring Neil, the teacher caught masturbating, which adds little and confused me a little bit: he talks of being to Amsterdam yet clutches a duty free bag from Stavanger. And the rest of the storylines splutter to a halt, providing little if any meaningful discourse on the subject, instead offering trite observations.
The staging is basic to say the least: the audience are on raked benches in one corner and the simply dressed sits in front: a desk to the left for Joy’s office, a desk on the right for Alan’s office and a double bed in the centre. There’s a couple of moments when scenes are run concurrently to great effect: both spouses were having an illicit post-work drink with their would-be lovers and each couple pushing past the other to say their line worked well and counterpointing Joy’s reminisces about her honeymoon with Alan getting a blowjob from another woman had its own sadistic humour, but otherwise Simon Godwin’s direction was a little uninspired.
Pippa Haywood almost makes this worth seeing anyway, she has an innate gift for comedy which is well known to fans of Green Wing and The Brittas Empire and is frequently hilarious here, which in turn makes her sad scenes all the more heartbreaking. But it is not enough to save the whole show, which whilst having its moments of humour, is gossamer light, free of significant insight and consequently unmemorable.