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Masterpieces. Finborough Theatre.

May 2, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 29th April 2018)

Time passes far more quickly than any of us realise. Social attitudes change, ever more rapidly in our web-connected times. Indeed “internet pornography” is one of the current buzz-words of the moment, perhaps making this revival of a 1983 play even more appropriate.

Rowena (Olivia Darnley) is a social worker married to Trevor (Edward Killingback). The action stems from a dinner party they attend, hosted by Rowena’s mother Jennifer (Sophie Doherty) and partner Clive (Nicholas Cass-Beggs).

Rowena’s old school friend Yvonne (Tessie Orange-Turner) and her husband Ron (Rob Ostlere) are also present, and the men begin swapping “rape jokes” that were inappropriate even then, fell thankfully out of favour but are now back on the ‘alternative’ circuit of today, alas (not that I’ll sit through any performance featuring one, though).

Yvonne moves on to how teenage boys produce regularly pornographic magazines (of the early 1980s era) in her class as she tries to teach. Rowena admits never having seen one, but her eventual sight of some provokes a spiral of increasingly extreme reactions. A sub-plot sees Rowena helping a prostitute back into mainstream work, only for the woman to be thwarted by the male ego once again.

On a brilliantly simple Verity Quinn “Adult Magazine Store” set, with period outfits by Leah Mulhern and effective sharp yet shadowy lighting from Jack Coleman, Sarah Daniels examines just where pornography sits in the lives of those who come into contact with it, and considers the wider impact it has on the relationship between the sexes in general.

Knowing where we have ended up some 35 years later, my reaction to this play was divided deeply. Taken as being of the time it was written, it is hard not to add a mental “if you think that’s bad,” and also to dismiss the dénouement as careless fiction – for there is no evidence of that one-time ‘moral panic’ scenario.

One line in the second act, however, is sufficient to make instant contemporary sense of the entire work. Rowena rages at her husband that to men, “women are just three convenient holes.” On so many levels it summarises the difference between genders, in perception and communication, explaining just why the debate Daniels raised all that time ago has still not even reached the foothills of discussion.

The two sides cannot even communicate. There isn’t any speech, no common language, in fact, no actual means of making noise nor hearing it nor interpreting those sounds in a way that could lead to ideas being formulated, transmitted, let alone exchanged, interpreted or ultimately acted on.

Against this, the cast are magnificent. Acting honours go to Sophie Doherty, working at a level rarely seen even on the largest and most sophisticated stage. The combination of Darnley and Orange-Tuner is also well chosen. The first is adept at spare emotion, adjusting the levels for maximum effect. The latter has a stillness drawing in an audience on pure narrative at will.

Killingback finds depth in some fairly thin writing, skilled at working off reaction. By contrast, Cass-Beggs manages a fascinating presence even when his major requirement is to be withdrawn and selfish. Ostiere rather combines the attributes of both other males, only stopping a millimetre short (probably at wardrobe and stage management request) of actually exuding physical slime. Exhausting but compelling to watch.

This could be a lesson from history, and director Melissa Dunne certainly keeps the pace of the period. Some of the key touchstones are dated, and yet, and yet… we are reminded repeatedly that we have so much still to consider, and that this mere opening of the debate remains closer than we would like it to be.


4 stars.

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