For those of us lacking first-hand experience of such events, The Sex Party, Terry Johnson’s new play now playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory, suggests we might get some insight into what lies behind the Pampas grass of suburban gardens. Indeed, the first scene lays the context of why people might attend such a gathering, the pleasures and pitfalls, and most importantly – the etiquette.
Alex (Jason Merrells) and his younger girlfriend Hetty (Molly Osborne) are the hosts, and first to arrive are Gilly (Lisa Dwan) and husband Jake (John Hopkins). The married couple aren’t keen to share each other with anyone else and so the ground rules are set.
It’s suggested the party is more swinging than we get to see, and that there are other couples enjoying themselves elsewhere in the house. But the characters we do meet are plentiful; joining the aforementioned quartet are the rich American Jeff (Timothy Hutton) and his Russian wife Magdalena (Amanda Ryan) who immediately seem at odds with flamboyant Tim (Will Barton) and Camilla (Kelly Price).
But it’s the late arrival in the form of Lucy (Pooya Mohseni) that sees things start to really heat up, for all the wrong reasons. As the night wears on and the characters become more scantily clad, it appears the real action is in the next room, “what happens in the living room, stays in the living room.” But for us, The Sex Party unfolds in Tim Shortall’s beautifully designed Islington kitchen.
There’s more chat than coitus, and not even a Waitrose buffet can distract from the fact that the characters have opposing views. Prejudices are laid bare and explored, while the way language is used to present fundamentally opposing views makes for an interesting take.
Johnson also directs the play, in which views on gender and sex are meticulously dissected. “Do you agree with JK Rowling or Harry Potter?” asks Tim in genuine bewilderment, but it seems not even the characters themselves know who they agree with. Unconscious bias blurs with homophobia, which blurs with transphobia as each of the group try to come to terms with their own opinions.
It’s unmistakably a Terry Johnson play; very funny at times with an everyday kind of quality to the comedy. It feels distinctly modern, with nods to an era long gone, but at times it feels like it’s playing too wide a field, with some of the dynamics between certain characters, such as Alex and Gilly not fully explored.
The final scene also doesn’t quite seem to fit, while everything that proceeded it was so explicit, this seems vague and suggests that events of the last couple of years have played a bigger part in the final outcome that any of us were expecting.
The cast are superb, Lisa Dwan in particular plays the role of Gilly perfectly, while Amanda Ryan’s Magdalena brings plenty of levity to proceedings, and Kelly Price plays the suavely sanctimonious Camilla with aplomb. But ultimately they are let down by a script that finds itself lacking the ability to articulate the topics it is wants to cover, instead wandering off in bewildering directions.
Terry Johnson’s The Sex Party is certainly a very amusing jaunt through an evening of contrasting viewpoints. It asks big questions, but probably deliberately, doesn’t proffer any answers.
The Sex Party is at Menier Chocolate Factory until 7th January 2023. Tickets are on sale here.