THE PRUDES is a delightful ‘quickie’ of a play that focuses on relationships and waning sexual desire.
For those going to the play with a long-term partner it could make for uncomfortable viewing, raising issues about honesty, openness and transparency in sex that usually get stored under the bed – rather than discussed in it. Blushes galore. Furtive glances everywhere.
Written and directed by Anthony Nielson, The Prudes revolves around the crumbling relationship of James (Jonjo O’Neill) and Jessica (Sophie Russell). They have been together for nine years but not had sex for 14 months and four days.
It is not a mid-life crisis, nor a seven-year itch or the fact that they are bored with each other. It is just about sex. Really? Indeed, they are determined that very night (or afternoon in the case of a matinee performance) is going to be when their lack of carnal activity comes to an end. They are going to have sex again. ‘Does anyone want to leave?’ James asks the audience as they make their sexual intentions clear. Not a member stirs.
Over the next 75 minutes, we learn the real reasons why James and Jessica have grown apart sexually as they sit on high stools sipping white wine (sometimes glugging it) with individual lights above them and a cascade of pink sheets hanging from the ceiling. Lacy curtains are their backdrop. Beneath them is a foam mattress with two pillows, reconfirming their determination to have sex. When the mattress is lit up, certain stains suggest that James has in the past taken his sexual frustrations into his own hands. An exceptional set designed by Fly Davis.
Slowly and wittily, James and Jessica disclose their vices, jealousies, insecurities and fragilities – delivered by way of individual monologues. Jess wonders whether James thinks about her sister when he masturbates – ‘he always had a thing about my sister’. Equally, James questions whether certain phrases she uses are a result of someone she has the hots for at her work.
There are confessions about past sexual encounters – ‘was it consent or relent?’ James contemplates at one stage. Also, words of encouragement for certain body parts. ‘Don’t be soft,’ pleads James. ‘When you’re soft, you’re weak.’ And there are some shocking revelations involving cousins and fathers. The jigsaw pictures begin to fit.
Jessica gets the best audience reaction when she asks them for a condom because she has come off the pill. ‘Hear that ladies,’ she bellows when James says sex is better without one and that he is an expert at early withdrawal. Oh yeah.
A nurse’s dress emerges on a clothes hanger from the heavens, while Jessica turns into Wonder Woman to get James going. Will it work? Will all be alright on the night? What has Jessica slipped into James’ drink? Why does James suddenly have an erection of a size and sustainability most men would die for?
This is an intelligent but fun play. Both O’Neill and Russell are exceptional, exuding a powerful chemistry on stage. They are also not frightened to improvise, putting some individual audience members on the spot (even those with a pen in their hand). ‘What did he say?’ ‘What did she say?’ Don’t sit in the front row unless you are prepared to join in the fun.
O’Neill, with his lyrical Northern Irish accent, gives his James a vulnerability and sadness. Worry, worry, worry. Russell is commanding as Jessica, towering over James both physically and mentally. She wears the trousers.
Will they? Won’t they? Go and find out. You will laugh and squirm at the same time. You have until June 2 to join in the fun.