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The Prudes review at Royal Court, London – ‘a probing comedy about sexual politics’

Jonjo O'Neill and Sophie Russell in The Prudes at Royal Court, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Here’s a prospect to make you blush, giggle and squirm. We’re ushered into a boudoir, a sugar-pink Barbara Cartland confection of cushions, swagged sheets, shag pile carpet and lacy curtains.

On a dais sit a man and a woman, between them a fleshy orchid in a vase, a bottle of wine and two glasses. R Kelly’s Bump and Grind throbs and purrs. Like it or not, it’s time for luuurrrve. And – like it or not – we’re required to watch.

Anthony Neilson’s new play is about sex: a driving force that is – or ought to be – a consensual, adults-only activity, that we struggle to discuss like grown-ups. Neilson gives the topic a vigorous probing that is funny, painful and typically theatrically playful. And he goes further.

This brisk two-hander, directed by the author, might seem like a quickie, but it’s acutely intelligent, and though the delivery is feather-light, the ideas are weighty. Abuse, inequality, gender roles and the effects of pornography all come up in fraught exchanges and confessional monologues that range from pillow talk to pillow fights, from desperate need and tenderness to raging hurt and hostility. It makes your toes curl, and makes you laugh loud, and often. It’s also deeply serious and sad.

Long-term couple Jess (Sophie Russell) and James (Jonjo O’Neill) haven’t had sex in 14 months and four days (Jess is counting). James eagerly takes the blame for the prolonged dry spell – he’s ostentatiously woke, declaring, “No one hates the patriarchy more than me!” Jess tries to stir him into action with threats (she might leave him), maternal coaxing (“I can’t help you if I don’t know how”) and awkward seduction techniques.

The bedroom soon feels more like a clinic or laboratory, where two people who love each other struggle to regain their lost chemistry. In each failing experiment, we see the imbalances and warped expectations that divide and afflict men and women not just domestically, but socially and politically.

The play points up the circle-jerk of sexist attitudes and the cultural “norms” that inform and reinforce them, from porn and Hollywood to fantasies and fairytales: Jess compares the ‘Goldilocks’ notion of “just right” to impossible ideals of femininity and bitterly remarks, “Women live with bears. Of course we’re caring and sensitive – those aren’t feminine qualities, they’re survival tactics.”

James wrestles impotently with male guilt, blinkered by privilege and colossal self-regard. Without denying that it’s men who wield most power, Neilson refuses to assign roles of victim or villain, picking wittily through the mess, the conversation bleakly open-ended. If it’s cruelly funny, the joke’s on us all; if there are solutions, he implies, it’s for all of us to find them.

 

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Verdict
Playful, probing, cruelly funny black comedy about sex and sexual politics
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