Are swans the only monogamous species on the planet? And is it really possible to distinguish love from sex? These are among the questions writer and director Robert Gillespie (of That Was the Week That Was fame) tackles in this wry look at sexual politics and social conventions. Unfortunately, the play’s ramshackle structure works against it, producing an ultimately insubstantial tissue of sporadically funny lines that even two strong performances can’t bolster.
Widower Michael Smith (Stuart Sessions) is in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Although his wife has died, his libido hasn’t; every woman he encounters is a groin-stirring sight. This revelation that lust survives marriage throws him into a frenzy of research that takes in bodice-ripping novels, historical accounts of legendary lovers, animal studies and dense medical texts on the effects of sex on the brain. Amid an ever-growing pile of notes, the real estate agent turned amateur sexual anthropologist comes to the conclusion that monogamy is an illusion. The heart is important, but it’s where it pumps blood to that really matters. From now on, his penis will be his guide.
Sessions makes for a nauseatingly smug Smith, a beige knitwear-clad Casanova-wannabe who falls for his own sense of intellectual superiority. The inflated statements he makes about human nature from the cloistered safety of his living room are ripe for pricking. And Maria (Clare Cameron), the Argentinean prostitute he pays to live with him as the culmination of his sweaty-palmed sexual inquiry, is the woman to do it.
As played by Cameron, Maria is a sultry, angry figure, with a hardness as fierce and as black as a bruise. While Smith pontificates about the Marquis de Sade and Persian satraps, she talks with a deadened sneer of being gang-raped as a child and having her back carved open by a man with a piece of glass. She has no time for her latest punter’s attempts at armchair psychoanalysis; unlike his books, she will not be his mirror. Tearing up his notes in front of him and withholding sex, she throws his life into disarray as she turns the situation to her advantage.
There’s no sugar-coated Pretty Woman fantasy here, just a look of rising panic on Smith’s face as he realises how out of his depth he is. Together, Cameron and Sessions are cringingly convincing; jarring at every turn and clashing in every conversation. They excel at hitting the play’s more successful comedic beats and dodging its clichés in the emotive moments.
But they can’t hide the disjointed nature of the script. For every pithy line or clever observation, there’s a dog collar, a whip and a wink to the audience. It’s as distracting as finding a gender politics department in front of the saucy postcards on Brighton Pier – and less amusing. There’s a grandstanding quality to Gillespie’s writing and staging that means no single idea is given enough room to develop before being dropped in favour of the next one. Swinging wildly between drama, cock jokes, dance sequences and head-scratching breaks in the fourth wall, this breathless production hits too many dead ends in its pursuit of having it all.