In Andrew Maddock’s image-filled paean to London’s sex trafficking and drug underworld, the title In/Out (a feeling) resurfaces in variable forms of wordplay like a bad trip on repeat. It refers, periodically, to the repetitive functional movement during sex which takes place between sex slave Blue and cocaine addict Ollie on a bed reminiscent of Tracey Emin’s 1999 Turner Prize entry. It is an expression of how Blue feels when she sleeps with men. It also refers to snorting up coke, something the characters do a lot of from suspended toy buckets hanging from the ceiling. It is breath too. Especially when Ollie, perhaps as a result of his drug-lust frenzied nights ‘banging out fat, fat lines’ of charlie, corrupts his health. Far more importantly, though, it means something less easy to express: our sense of (ir)responsibility towards each other, the sometimes incomprehensible behaviour of human beings and the taunting inevitability of fate.
Niall Phillips directs the piece at a fast tempo. The two characters are separated from each other not just by words, but by levels of staging. The difficulty is in creating the two vastly opposing inner worlds of the characters realistically, mapping out an emotional hinterland that we can all understand.
Alex Reynolds plays a sex worker whose mind is so affected by the horror of her ordeals that she is unable to utter more than a few words of the same stilted English. Her internal life is trapped by the never ending abuse of her body. The only straws of reality she clutches to are remembrances of her sister, whom she describes as being ‘Red’, like the paper trails that hang from the ceiling along with the buckets. Sometimes, it is difficult, in the short breaks she is allowed, to imagine her able to do anything other than clean herself with hygiene wipes.
This could change when Nicholas Clarke’s Ollie struts onto the scene, coerced into the brothel by his ‘nutter’ friend Connell. Across the raft-like bed, Ollie and Blue lock eyes and fall in love. Here the audience is challenged as to whether they make a value judgement. Is it love? Aren’t they just falling for each other because they have dependency issues? But is this not part of what love is? The play’s tagline might be ‘an explosive exploration into London’s sex trade’ but to make it attract those who don’t go to the theatre often, the writer is also setting up a love story.
Andrew Maddock lets the idea of Ollie and Blue coming together swell in our thoughts and seem possible, even as their daily battles take them away from each other. But as the saying goes, one drowning man cannot save another – each time Ollie steps into Blue’s bed, the tempestuous sea of his words, though reassuring and warm, cannot bridge the gap between them. It is not just because Blue is unable to escape her pimp, or cannot articulate her innermost feelings (even to herself) or that, sometimes, Ollie has more to say. Rather, it is because Ollie, who throws the coke around from the buckets as if he is the Sandman locked in a child’s nightmare, just wants to conform to what he perceives as being normal.
In our heads, we often create an image of what we think we want, only for life to pop up and offer us what we need. Sometimes the two don’t look the same. The wise are the ones who accept life’s overtures. So, just as we think Ollie and Blue might actually make it, fate shows her cruel hand in the form of bad boy Connell and Blue’s pimp.
Though slightly jarring, Niall Philips violently transitions between contrasting scenes to highlight the impossible chasm between Ollie and Blue’s separate, abusive worlds. Ollie commands the stage with Nietzschean super power and Nicholas Clarke revels in his words, it’s like watching an Essex boy version of Stephen Dedalus. Alex Reynolds has a more difficult journey, unravelling Blue’s inner life with a little too few words but making up for it with a controlled physical performance.
Whilst the play’s characterisation may occasionally feel unbalanced, the writing is rich with alliteration and a joy to hear, never mind see.