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Features Published 17 July 2017

Touch at the Soho Theatre

Bad sex, jiggly bits, and twenty-something omnishambles: Rosemary Waugh and Gillian Greer conduct an email chat about Touch and young women's sexuality on stage.
Rosemary Waugh and Gillian Greer
Touch at the Soho Theatre.

Touch at the Soho Theatre.

From: Rosemary

To: Gillian

Hi Gillian,

So I came up with this idea that we should do this as an email conversation and then somewhat regretted it as soon as I realised that would involve using terrible sentences where I pretended to talk to you whilst actually being dead aware that I was writing for the people who would read this and therefore saying things like: “So Gillian, we went to the Soho Theatre last Wednesday as part of an ongoing conversation about a certain genre of TV and theatre written by and for young women…”, which is something no one would ever say in an email and, if they did, that would be the last email they ever got a reply to. But unfortunately I couldn’t think of another format and I’d already texted you suggesting this, so reservations aside, I think we should go with it. Cider poured, computer on – let us start wrestling this many boobed beast. (Am I allowed to make a joke about boobs? Does it even make sense??)

I think we should start, for reasons of professionalism (obviously) with some background information roughly resembling this:

Once upon a time there was a young woman named Gillian and she loved nothing more than passing the time watching Girls or Fleabag (or other similar shows) on the television. Like many other viewers (correct me if I’m wrong) she laughed; she cried and she had a thoroughly good time consuming this latest version of female-led drama.

On the other side of the country was another young woman named Rosemary. Like with many things in life, Rosemary was big GRUMP when it came to these television shows. She questioned (often at length to patient friends like Gillian) why this version of young female character with their storyline based around bad sex and being a failure at existence was so palatable to viewers and television execs alike. Why, she wondered, was this packaged as something that was meant to appeal to young women like herself?

And so started our ‘ongoing conversation’, which culminated in us deciding to go review Touch by Vicky Jones from the perspective of one person who usually likes the Dry Write way of doing things and one who readily admitted she was probably “the worst person on earth to go review it”.

What, Gillian, happened next?

>>>

To: Rosemary

From: Gillian

Hahahaha! I can definitely attest to the veracity of the above. As a loud mouthed, middle class white woman who frequently struggles to navigate the physical world or ‘adult’ as the verb has become, I was really looking forward to this show. My heart leaps at any and all irreverent female comedy. Irreverent female heartbreak. Irreverent female anything. I like women who swear and talk openly about their jiggly bits and are not afraid to bring to light the amount of terrible sex that is out there in the world, lying in wait, unfulfilling and untalked about. I follow Lena Dunham on Twitter. This was gonna be my PLAY.

As with any burgeoning new voice or art form, I feel like it’s our job as critics to keep it on its toes and demand only the best of it. Otherwise, tropes form, it becomes atrophied and lazy and a kind of prepackaged pacifier for the lady-masses, as per Rosemary’s deepest, darkest fears. So Rosemary actually ended up being the BEST person to see this play with. To justify my fangirling, it would have to be really fucking good.

>>>

To: Rosemary

From: Gillian

And then, well, it wasn’t.

>>>

To: Gillian

From: Rosemary

So whilst I was getting the train to London I started reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a book that says in the opening paragraph: “Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad.” And it occurred to me that maybe my dislike for these TV shows was simply a reflection of me being a MASSIVE SNOB, like I’ll tolerate Maggie Nelson discussing (as she does in another book) “big veiny cocks” [need to find the exact quote] but turn my nose up at something not in book form and not readily quoting Judith Butler.

HOWEVER [we already know I am a snob, so let’s brush over that], reading The Argonauts and your post-show comment about whether these white, middle-class, largely heteronormative stories are actually relevant anyway, made me reflect that one of the problems with Touch, is it’s just NOT VERY DARING. It thinks it is by, like, making a few jokes about poo, saying the world ‘muff’ and introducing the most mainstream version of ‘kink’ available (e.g. an Older Man spanking a younger woman with a wooden hairbrush) but actually it’s incredibly tame in every respect. The lighting fades to black every time sex is about to happen; they barely even swear and the biggest revelation (like it 1885) is that women sometimes fake orgasm. There’s firstly none of the inventiveness of (look, I’m actually not entirely anti-Fleabag) a woman masturbating to news broadcasts of Obama, but also none of the acknowledgement that for many Young People the conversation around sex and gender has moved light years on from the Ann Summers-esque ‘shock’ of a woman having lube in the bedroom drawer.

On which note, the scene where Dee dresses in ‘masculine’ clothes and makes the guy who has come over wear a dress and heals, felt like a terribly under-baked and misunderstood attempt as ‘exploring gender norms’ or whatever the point was meant to be.

Sorry. I’m just going off on one now. Maybe you should say something nice. Or, as I would say if I were a mother, if you can’t say something nice, then at least say something constructive…. x x

P.S. I have something else to say about Maggie Nelson and sex and joy. <<< Readers, this sentence is exactly the type of horrible thing I actually email people. And if you don’t believe me, ask Ka Bradley.

>>>

To: Rosemary

From: Gillian

I think you’re hitting on something that has cropped up in some other reviews for the show. Matt Trueman very archly noted in one of the only less than glowing reviews I’ve read that the whole thing is a bit ‘Two Packs of Condoms and a Bottle of Lube’, like a pitch for an upcoming BBC3 sitcom to help widen DryWrite’s expanding media empire. Lyn Gardner actually complimented Vicky Jones’ direction for ‘cleverly avoiding acres of naked flesh’, but isn’t that kind of frankness exactly what is so liberating about these ‘third wave feminism’ stories? I want flesh! I want the whole kit and caboodle!

In short, for a play that is ostensibly about sex (there is not a single character in the play that Dee doesn’t get off with), it’s a complete prude. When I think of the moments in performance that have set my feminist heart alight, it’s Lena Dunham trying to untangle herself from her tights on a sofa in the pilot of GIRLS, it’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge triumphantly confiding to the audience that there is a bloody handprint on her bedroom wall, a remnant from a menstrually inconvenient threesome, and yes, as you say, Obama wanking! Of course there is often some deep well of sadness that runs below these acts, a suggestion that sex-as-adventure is a sticking plaster for issues that won’t go away, but these women are active and triumphant in their sexual misadventures. There is joy to the act. In Touch, we’ve not got much more than a rolling carousel of dickheads in a bedsit who never even get their kit off. There’s very little fun here, very little joy.

In terms of saying something nice, I think Amy Morgan is a joy. With a light touch and a Welsh lilt she lifts this character up off the ground. No mean feat, considering the odds seem to be fairly stacked against the audience finding much sympathy in her.

>>>

To: Gillian

From: Rosemary

Yes, and whilst we’re on that track, Naana Agyei-Ampadu was excellent as Vera, doing the best she could with a badly written character (as they all were to some extent). As we had already discussed and you said you couldn’t let a review go without, her rendition of ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ was the highlight on the show – putting the (babysitters to the rich and famous) Norland Nannies’ frankly terrifying version to shame.

You pre-empted my postscript comment, because what I was going to note was that whilst Nelson is entirely frank (and almost never uses anything BUT the word ‘fuck’ to describe sex) she is entirely committed to it being a joyful thing. The point is that she enjoys being fucked up the ass, and whether or not you support her writing about it in such terms, the basic ethos is that sex in whatever form, and no matter with how many previous good/bad partners, is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not even part of ‘finding yourself’, like you’ll do this as a ‘phase’ that you then grow out of when you settle down to adulthood in the accepted format. It’s genuinely a part of a grown woman’s life with no sense of shame, embarrassment or only-as-a-jokeism (it struck me there’s something a bit BRITISH about this haw-hawing over lube << and yes, I loved the Trueman summary and have been mentally using it ever since). Nelson’s type of thing, in many ways, is what it really feels like 21st Century Feminism should be. Correct me if I’m wrong (she said, on her high, high horse) but weren’t shows where the female characters are not taken seriously, can’t succeed at careers and only have storylines based on sex with men, exactly what we [Who the fuck is ‘we’, Rosemary, and why do you insist on saying things like this??] were meant to be fighting against??

[Climbs off horse. Goes to put kettle on.]

>>>

To: Gillian

From: Rosemary

* Also re: nudity etc. I was also disappointed that no one actually pissed in the loo or shower. I mean, it’s like Live Art never happened.

>>>

To: Rosemary

From: Gillian

This is a legitimate criticism. It’s very hard to buy into the idea that a play starring a character who is happy to piss in her shower, but won’t actually depict it on stage, approves of her behaviour. Which, while you make the tea, brings me to My Big Point.

There is an epiphany buried somewhere in Touch that has tainted stories like this for me, potentially forever. Pull the grumpy train into the station, for I am about to board. The fact that this is a play about a sex-driven, careerless, messy omni-shambles of a woman is not an issue for me. I identify with these women. I am these women! I am currently sitting in my pants drinking cider in a room full of unwashed dishes and scrolling through Agent Provocateur while sobbing into my overdraft. But there’s a point at which these stories become disingenuous. The women telling them stop being semi-student, inarticulate and irresponsible woman-children and actually become incredibly accomplished businesswomen and storytellers. The success of the women of DryWrite is a testament to this. But the work doesn’t catch up. In an act of what I can only assume is colossal impostor syndrome, the stories told continue to centre around bad sex, unpaid bills and dimly lit futures, even as their stars begin to rise. I would be far more interested in what it must have been like for Vicky Jones and Phoebe Waller-Bridge to go from a scrappy show at the Edinburgh Fringe to battling with BBC Execs to keep their vision, but these brush strokes stay hidden. What we get instead is the worst of us, somehow becoming sanctified and enshrined as empowerment. I like to aspire to things. I like to aspire to a glittering career, to maintaining a healthy and positive relationship, to eventually getting up off my arse and washing the dishes/catching up on the washing/changing the burnt out lightbulbs. What stories like Touch tell me is that I shouldn’t, or don’t need to. It’s a lie.

And with that, I am snapping on my rubber gloves to get some of my shit together. Take it from here! :) xx

>>>

To: Gillian

From: Rosemary

Actually I loved that reply and agree with everything in it.

Can we just leave it there? x

>>

Touch is on at the Soho Theatre until 26 August 2017. Click here for more details.

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