Terry Johnson’s The Sex Party is a shockingly misconceived project at the Menier Chocolate Factory
“I’m going to need a drink or three”
There’s something deeply depressing about esteemed writers and artistic directors embracing the notion of antiwoke so wholeheartedly, as if the world of theatre is the place to reveal how antediluvian your attitudes [possibly] are. Worse is the pretence this is the position to create a piece of theatre from, particularly when it purports to be tackling these kinds of gammon-enraging contemporary topics.
What are they? Well take your pick, The Sex Party takes no prisoners in trying to provoke and then running away. Alex is hosting a sex party in his swanky Islington home (because, where else would he live…) with his much younger partner Hetty and as he’s invited a right mixture of poorly-written participants, the stage is set for (offstage) mediocre middle-class, middle-aged marriage malarkey with a weirdly dated 90s frame of reference.
So far so cringe-worthy but the arrival of Lucy brings Johnson’s true purpose into focus as everyone is pretty sure she’s trans and so he finally gets to stoke the culture wars discourse because…well, who the fuck knows. Suddenly, the passing comments about Twitter being full of people pontificating about which they know little become wonderfully hypocritical as manufactured debate further extend the embarrassment.
Johnson cheats by having the stock Russian character deliver the most overtly transphobic comments (at least to start with) under cover of being the ‘frank’ one, whilst the Brits all step gingerly around the idea of confronting the matter. And his contrived way of forcing his hot-button issues to the fore is epically ham-fisted, requiring an asisine conversation with someone complaining that there’s no black or gay people at the orgy. It’s all just so pointless.
Maybe part of the issue is Johnson directing his own material, where an external pair of eyes might have been able to mitigate at least some of the problems – the old school sexism is so predictable (women in their lingerie, men with a shirt open at best). You almost start to feel for the cast – Lisa Dwan and Kelly Price are too good for this, Jason Merrells and John Hopkins decent eye candy if we’re being as shallow as the play, Pooya Mohseni somehow finding some dignity as Lucy, Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton inexplicably making his London stage debut here – the coolness of their reaction at the curtain call says it all.