I have a friend, born in 1971, who maintains he is the emanant of immaculate conception. As an only child, there are no pesky siblings to disprove this theory. It’s not that he’s deluded or believes he’s particularly miraculous: it’s just that, ever since he found out about sex, and particularly started having sex himself, it’s been perfectly clear to him that NO WAY DID HIS PARENTS EVER DO THAT. Nope. Not at all. Never.
There’s something incredibly touching about making a show re-creating the era in which your parents were young and passionate and fumbling between the sheets, not necessarily with each other or in a heterosexual coupling. The Wardrobe Ensemble oscillate between cheerful cliché – Farah slacks and play-suit flares and shades of mustard and brown – and something more complex: a carefully researched consideration of attitudes towards sex, past and present, as related to feminism, Stonewall, pop culture and more. The characters on stage are mostly kids: they missed out on the swinging 60s and now they’re scrabbling within a culture of misinformation and prurience and the often false hope of emancipation. The earth doesn’t move when they do have sex: but the carpet gets crumpled for sure.
Smartly, the relationships and individuals that the group zoom in on are ones that still – for all our modern latitude – cause a frisson now. Anthony-to-his-parents/Tony-to-his-friends steals his mother’s velvet leggings and reddest lipstick and tucks his penis between his legs the better to see in his reflection the other he dreams of being. Tessa and Anna’s passionate tumble is interrupted by a glimpse of the future, when it’s inconceivable to Anna that her first girlfriend should have married a man: and how many of the prominent stories even within queer culture focus on bisexuality or across-the-spectrum love? It’s as taboo today for a university lecturer to fuck an enthusiastic student as it was then. Towards the end of the play, that student, Penny, stands for office in her union, and looks forward to a time when “language will be redesigned to oppress no one”. That’s the work of four centuries, not 44 years.
It’s this awareness of time, the constants in human existence and the incremental shifts, that makes 1972 such a thoughtful piece of work – for all its surface humour. As one of the female characters enters an X-rated movie house, performer Ben Vardy drops a top fact (I’m taking it on trust that it’s true): the second most common image in palaeolithic cave drawings is of people with enlarged breasts and penises. Where there is imagery, there is pornography. Underlying the show is a question: how has that natural human curiosity about other bodies and their interconnections corroded under the influence of capitalism? The Ensemble suggest an answer in the young woman’s response to the film, which happens to be Deep Throat: her jaw drops, her knees clench, she runs home as a kind of self-flagellation – and can’t face having sex at all.
Throughout, the connection is made between sex and liberation: women’s, yes, sexual and political, but more than that. What really concerns the group is the slow but steady path to freedom for all human beings to look and dress and love and fuck exactly as they feel, without judgement or recrimination or abuse. Which makes this sound like a terribly worthy production, when it isn’t. The politics and the sadness slice to the gut because for the most part the show is light as a bubble: witty, charming, louche and daft, with wah-wah guitar and flailing space-hoppers and characters who move like pulsating globs in a lava lamp.
Why 1972 in particular? Simple: Bowie. His Starman appearance on Top of the Pops in July that year is the story’s lynchpin, and while I didn’t see the show in previous incarnations at the Edinburgh festival or elsewhere, I’d wager there’s an additional layer of poignancy to watching it in the wake of Bowie’s death. Read any of the eulogies that poured out and it’s clear – even if this is nostalgia talking – that he really did seem to be a vision of a brighter, bolder future that night. And again, what’s gorgeous about this show is its recognition of how difficult it is to attempt to live that future in the present: the tantalising promise always in balance with fear. The ensemble never shy away from the violence that non-conformity or otherness provokes, and with that comes a manifesto: let’s be as open and honest about sex as we can, because that might be the best chance we have of becoming better people.
1972: The Future of Sex is on until 23rd April 2016. Click here for tickets.