You start the evening bristling with excitement, maybe you have even dressed up for the occasion, put on something a bit special. The anticipation builds as people start arriving, perhaps there’s some small talk over a few drinks as everyone readies themselves for what’s in store, but one thing is certain, everyone is here to have a really good time. So how disappointing when the evening turns out to be damp squib. Maybe the timing was off or the chemistry just wasn’t right, but somehow all that hope and excitement has ended in disappointment. But that’s the gamble you take with a night at the theatre, one that is sadly replicated onstage in the world premiere of Terry Johnson’s new play The Sex Party, reopening the Menier Chocolate Factory. What could have been an entertaining farce or even a dramatic exploration of middle-class yearning is instead as unsatisfactory for its audience as it turns out to be for its thinly drawn characters.
A suburban past time most associated with the 1970s and 80s, there should be endless mileage in the notion of bringing a group of semi-strangers together in a leafy enclave of North London for an evening of sexual exuberance and liberality. The contrast of their respectable daily lives and the outward privilege of middle-class dignity with the seedy wife swapping and orgiastic abandon of the sex party is replete with tragicomedy.
Victoria Wood based a rather superb stand-up piece on the concept that mined the awkward balance of repressed personalities with the very 80s incidental observations about brushed nylon sheets, DIY woes and bad backs. And although Alan Ayckbourn has never directly set one of his plays at an orgy (at least not yet), the scenario speaks to his interest in the interaction of uncomfortably formed groups where home truths and long-hidden resentments pour out of his characters as their facades finally crack, not to mention the template that Abigail’s Party has set for suburban excess and bitter desperation. Johnson’s play, therefore, is couched in some strong comedy ancestry, if only The Sex Party has been less distracted by identity politics.
The set-up is a good one, a group of semi-strangers known mostly only to the host, invited to the Islington home he shares with a younger girlfriend for an exclusive sex party. And Johnson sets his story primarily in the kitchen, a location that immediately suggests plenty of avenues for comedy where people can hide or feel awkward away from the excesses taking place in other rooms – which Johnson’s scene-setting suggests well. Kitchens at parties serve partly as a functional space, a place to pass through in search of drinks or sustenance while the real business of the evening – be in conversation, dancing or something more licentious – happens elsewhere.
Consequently, as Johnson recognises here, the kitchen is both deliberately detached and a place of refuge, even a space for a different kind of intimacy or problem-sharing. This proves a useful backdrop to The Sex Party, a place where conversation is the thing on most people’s minds and from here, Johnson quite successfully establishes the tone of the play, beautifully represented in Tim Shortall’s set design of teal units and a spacious island counter that offers plenty of places to sit, stand and lean as the size of the group changes and morphs across the evening while speaking to the clearly well to do aesthetic that drives so much of the drama. Beneath the shiny facades and catalogue-perfect furnishings lurk multiple demons as well as the psychological emptiness of the characters’s lives which, although never outwardly stated, manifests in this desire for status symbols and a projection of self-satisfied success.
From this solid platform, Johnson then interjects a series of characters and relationships that explore the need for individual gratification and the complex dynamics of different marriages; some fine, some troubled, some that become troubled as a result of this evening. And there is a real mixture of personalities and backgrounds that Johnson uses to create variety within the attendees of the party, some more successfully drawn than others, which certainly begins to feel like Ayckbourn territory with the potential to be either explosive or caustic depending on the strings the writer chooses to pull.
Indeed for a sex party, relatively few of the attendees seem comfortable with the notions of abandon and promiscuity that the situation, you would think, demands hence why the kitchen becomes the safe focal point for those seeking retreat. And there is huge potential in these dynamics that Johnson doesn’t mine to their full extent, not sure where the balance of comedy and drama should lie. And while performances will sharpen as the run continues, there are underlying structural difficulties in The Sex Party that stymie its development.
Character trajectories are one of them, and although wider problems or fears are hinted at, the play’s uncertain tone means these are never brought to a head. Host Alex, for example (played by Jason Merrells) has multiple levels to him, organising this party and personally selecting friends and acquaintances to attend. And we learn that this is not his first party, something it appears he has done many times before. In Merrells’s performance, he is open and unembarrassed about the evening, not cocky or seedy but a good host keen to encourage everyone according to their comfort levels. Yet, Alex has a much younger partner (Molly Osborne), we learn he has never married and seems to hold a candle for married friend Gilly and enjoys being seen as the liberal Islingtonite.
Yet, he spends almost all of the party in the kitchen, the anchor around which the show pivots as different individuals and groups come to talk to or across him. And Johnson never really let us know why. There are some interesting hints about his feelings for Gilly which could have been the emotional core of the drama but never quite takes up the room that it should, while questions about his own lack of fulfillment go answered – is he secretly prudish about his own body, is it just Gilly’s presence that makes him so reticent, why is he so keen for girlfriend Hetty to have sex with any or all of the other men and is there an impotency or libido issue as she implies later on. Just who is this man and why is he holding this event? Johnson takes us frustratingly close to the answer, and Merrells does a great job in finding an inner landscape, but it feels incomplete.
Similarly, Gilly and husband Jake have acres of possibility that is never fully realised with a marriage that seems to be filled with contradiction and unresolved conflict. They appear to be in a fairly anomalous position in this drama, attending a party but only to have public sex with one another, as Jake’s awakwardness and jealousy prevents them from indulging with others. And, other than a way to push the limits of their marriage, particularly through Gilly’s connection with the host, Johnson doesn’t know quite what else to do with them or to present their relationship with any consistency.
We are told very early on that they have sex seven or eight times a week so what is the appeal of the party if their desire for one another is still so notable – not that they appear to be particularly enamored of one another despite this supposed close physical intimacy. Later, Gilly’s frustrations bubble up, an unfulfilled need for a more adventurous life and clear wish for them to join in with the rest of the party, so there are great possibilities for marital revelation and the culmination of years of hidden resentment, but Johnson doesn’t build up his characters enough to tear them down. That Lisa Dwan creates depth and credibility for this character is a credit to the actor, but the trajectory is weakly resolved.
Likewise, husband Jake played by John Hopkins never gets beyond the surface of an unexplained possessiveness. There is great comic opportunity in being the uncomfortable one who feels overwhelmed, perhaps forced to be there through fear of losing his wife, but none of that is properly realised and it is unclear – given Jake’s refusal to share his wife – why he was convinced to come, especially as Johnson had already allocated the kitchen-lurking to the host. What does The Sex Party gain from the presence of this character if not an eventual implosion or, conversely, an unexpected overindulgence as the main outcomes for him?
Everyone else is too basically drawn to really grasp their role or input into the play’s final outcome; the mismatched party bore Jeff (Timothy Hutton) and his Russian wife Magdalena (Amanda Ryan) are tools to showcase contemptible political views and comic outbursts, drug-taker Tim (Will Baron) is almost from another show while his similarly unlikely partner Camilla (Kelly Price) is the mouthpiece for contemporary sexual politics on consent and gender identity but she has so little personality beyond this that she barely feels like a real character.
Now, having set the pieces in motion, Johnson throws a curveball at their night, one that inadvertently also sinks the play. The arrival of a trans character Lucy played by Pooya Mohseni feels brash and unsatisfactory, turning the story from a light tragicomedy to something more political but without anything particularly sensible to say about trans rights or the attitudes of others at this party. Lucy’s body suddenly becomes the battleground about which some attendees demand genitalia information while her presence causes confusion about any further sex that may be expected. Questions about Lucy’s sexuality are equally crass and while Johnson is trying to mock the clumsy ignorance of this set, the way in which the volume of other people’s opinions are imposed on this last-minute guest as well as a particularly clunky exposition on the concept of womanhood with references to J.K. Rowling are inadequate at best, even lazy.
A generous reading of this scenario is Johnson’s attempt to explore a complex issue and highlight the inherent or multilayered prejudices of almost everyone else at the party, and showing the various negative inferences that trans bodies are subjected to. But it doesn’t work and, as the primary focus of the play, this becomes a storyline that distracts from and undercuts comic potential elsewhere, and feels unnecessarily reductive in its exploration of the issues it raises, boiling gender down to bodies, sex and sexuality in which the character is blamed for attending and, thereby, making it awkward for everyone else. A trans person at a sex party isn’t a basis for comedy and Johnson just isn’t the person who should be writing that story.
As the piece concludes, the writer cuts to the end of the party where everything has gone wrong and a slightly chaotic scene of recriminations, arguments and boundary violations culminate in an equally lightweight scene about consent. The audience never sees what goes wrong and perhaps it should as the imaginative leaps from characters debating trans rights to confused outraged about the outcomes of the party itself is too sudden, picking up none of the threads from earlier in the show or weaving together character behaviour with the things that happen in their time off stage. As a result, The Sex Party provides neither comic or dramatic resolution.
There is so much potential here, a scenario that has so many interesting facets and comments to make about middle-class dissatisfaction, sexual expectation and status that could move the image of 1970s suburban orgies on and reflect on the practice in the twenty-first century. And there are worlds of possibility within the character sketches that Johnson creates, more than enough to fill a play without focusing on these patchy political debates on gender. But without this injection of humour, the characters and the audience go home unsatisfied.