Review: THE SEX PARTY, Menier Chocolate Factory

Terry Johnson's new play is controversial for controversy's sake

By: Nov. 16, 2022
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The Sex Party

The Sex PartyTerry Johnson's new play,The Sex Party, has many ingredients for success; an intriguing idea, an excellent cast and a beautiful set, but is let down with a sledgehammer script and meandering message that goes nowhere. There's a lot happening at once, but the entire play is as shallow as a puddle.

Alex and his (much) younger girlfriend Hetty are hosting a sex party at Alex's Islington home. Gilly, who has a long history with Alex, arrives with her husband Jake, to strictly observe the action. They are joined by pompous American Jeff and his brusque Russian wife Magdalena, then later by dim, drug-addled Tim and his 'woke' partner Camilla. When Lucy, a lone transgender woman, arrives, the evening dissolves into chaos.

The setting and the characters could have become a highly interesting, modern day Abigail's Party, but instead relies on lazy tropes and stereotypes. This is a white, straight gathering where the women flirt with a little light lesbianism, but any homosexual action is viewed as repulsive. Many characters appear in various states on undress, but is only the women who are kitted out in 'sexy' underwear. There is a particulary distasteful moment where it is revealed that Gilly has been assaulted by Tim, but this is simply waved away.

Despite overly earnest protestations from Camilla and some clever ripostes from Lucy, transphobia is rife. It feels that Johnson is being deliberately provocative, but offers nothing as an alternative. Some of the dialogue feels like a particularly offensive (and obvious) Twitter thread.

There are some witty lines, but overall it is frustrating how much of this excellent cast are woefully underused. Lisa Dwan is in full throttle as Gilly, her alcoholism apparent while topping up her prosecco with neat gin, but her innate sadness never given the space to breathe. She has spiky chemistry with John Hopkins as husband Jake. Jason Merrells is smooth as increasingly rattled host Alex and Molly Osbourne is very engaging as the bouncy Hetty.

Amanda Ryan and Timothy Hutton are suitably offensive as brash and opinionated Magdalena and Jeff, but never become more than one-dimensional. Will Barton provides a few small laughs as gormless Tim and Kelly Price comes across as annoying as Camilla, mainly because Johnson has made her so arrogant in her political correctness. Pooya Mohensi is graceful and refined as Lucy and smart in her rebuttals, but it always feels that she is an object, rather than an character.

The heart of the problem is that much of the play is structured around the exploration of sexual norms, consent and how far society is being challenged by change, but the play is trivial and meanders so much it is hard to see any structure. The final scene also feels awkwardly tacked on and ends the play listlessly.

Tim Shortall's set design is the most engaging thing to look at, with all the trappings of a middle-class Islington kitchen. Distressed oak floorboards, a huge central island, brushed gold taps and even an Ottolenghi cookbook.

There's a great play somewhere, exploring the ideas and motivations behind middle class, cis, sex parties. However, this is not it.

The Sex Party is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 7 January 2023

Photo Credit: Alistair Muir


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