At Blah’s Big Weekend back at the end of April, spoken word poet Anna Freeman told the story of how her free-thinking (but hideously embarrassing) mother had once asked if she wanted to have a party to celebrate her first period. Horrified, the teenage Anna declined her mother’s invitation to social death, as most of us surely would have done. But if there is a group of people who might be up for that sort of moon cup celebration, then it is perhaps Propolis Theatre who are, in their new show Spill, throwing a sex party.
Not, we should say right now, the kind of sex party that Silvio Berlusconi used to throw back when times were good for him, but the kind of sex party where we get together and – in a format I feel Anna’s mother would approve of – talk frankly and openly about sex. Spill is in fact the result of 20 interviews with 32 people asking them questions about their sexual pasts, presents and futures. The huge amount of information they gathered was then whittled down into this production in which all the lines are delivered verbatim, including every mumble, err and repetition.
Were it not for the knowledge that this is verbatim and not created, some of the voices represented could verge on being irritating, but then fact is always weirder than fiction and the truth represented here is that people are often pretty irritating when they talk about sex. Or rather the very type of person who likes to be outright in their discussion of their own sex life – indeed often prides themselves on being that Samantha-from-Sex-in-the-City-type – is often grating.
The more confident voice does seem to be mildly over-represented here and I wonder to what extent the interviews were themselves forgivably biased towards being conducted with people inherently confident about addressing this subject matter. However, what this production does well is in blending these more overt voices with those from people whose stories are not those screamed across a table on a Girls’ Night Out. One of the most interesting of these is from a French woman who tells of how her relationship with literally opening her legs – for sex or any other reason – was shaped by her experience of having an autoimmune disease as a teenager which resulted in painful ulcers forming in her vagina. Many hours spent with doctors being viewed as a specimen on a table left her associating being touched in the area with pain. The story of how she moved through this and on to having sex as a healthy adult in many ways overshadowed any of the others. Her story alone could have sustained a 70-minute production and was beautifully and engagingly performed by Jessica Clough-MacRae.
Similarly, Jenny Davies (in a complete transformation from her last role as a rather dowdy and aggressive journalist in The Light Burns Blue) bought to her outspoken character the exact vulnerability so often found lurking just below the surface in people who are “TOTALLY OK WITH TALKING ABOUT SEX!” The character’s childhood tales of catcalls when walking along the rural road to the garage are delivered both with bravado and a palpable confusion. The attempt to understand and be OK with something she is ultimately unable to make peace with seeps through despite her efforts to hide it.
This is an interesting and bold show to stage which suggests Propolis Theatre are not your average group of either young people or actors. Ultimately, the show could have been fleshed out with a more diverse selection of voices – particularly those of older people. This is very much a show about young people and sex, rather than people and sex per se. Indeed it could be easily adapted into different versions with different voices in the same format at a later date. However, the technical precision, sensitive delivery and forthright determination not to make the same old stuff everyone has done before, makes both this show and the actors in it well worth seeing.