The word ‘slut’ always refers to women, usually in a derogatory manner: a slut can be a woman of dirty habits or appearance, a domestic drudge, or a woman of loose morals inclined towards promiscuity. The ‘Slutwalk’ campaign aims to reclaim the term, though I’m not sure what there is to feel empowered by. American playwright Joshua Conkel’s surreal tragicomedy (which was developed in last year’s Old Vic New Voices US/UK Exchange project and is now receiving its world premiere in Rebecca Atkinson-Lord’s production), The Sluts of Sutton Drive brings plenty of humour and sympathy as well as an excess of shock tactics to this suburban dystopia where pre-teens boast about ‘ finger banging’ their classmates and it’s handy to keep a knife in your handbag just in case you need to carry out a penis amputation. Tread carefully when leaving the auditorium at the interval.
Stephanie Schwartz (Georgia Buchanan) isn’t a housewife, but she is desperate. A widowed supermarket worker in small-town Washington State who dislikes sex and longs for pretty things, repeatedly watching Rosemary’s Baby for the interior design, she becomes addicted to drinking cleaning products for the burning sensation and hallucinations. With a mortgage she can’t afford, a 12-year-old son obsessed with pornography, a boyfriend she doesn’t particularly like and a rapist terrorising the neighbourhood, it isn’t surprising that she seeks some kind of escape.
In this dysfunctional set-up, female friendship proves to be the strongest bond. Buchanan makes a very endearing addict and she and Kelly Burke as Stephanie’s best friend Sharice are great fun to watch together. Sharice’s confidence and pragmatism counterbalances Stephanie’s nervy naÃ¯vetÃ© and their friendship has echoes of Thelma and Louise and The Witches of Eastwick. In midst of the rubble in Stephanie’s dingy living room, the partners in crime perform an interpretive dance of womanhood while dressed in their wedding dresses defaced with man-hating slogans. It’s quite irresistible.
The men are far more promiscuous than the eponymous ‘sluts’: Stephanie’s boyfriend Will (James Hillier), believes himself to be quite the ladykiller because he drives a Harley Davidson until his dominance is threatened by the asexual mailman with a penchant for blowing things up (Matt Steinberg). Young Jayden (Eric Kofi Abreba), a child played by an adult, is probably the most disturbing character in the play. He’s introduced as a monosyllabic schoolboy demanding his dino nuggets and quickly hints at something more disturbing.
Atkinson-Lord’s direction embraces the script’s larger-than-life elements and is peppered with a self-referential mocking of the genre, a device that could be developed further. However, for all the outrageous melodrama and pleasingly non-clichÃ©d lesbian elements, Stephanie’s final monologue charting the abuse she suffered as a child is disappointingly hackneyed – child abuse as an explanation for everything just doesn’t cut it dramatically.