Porno Chic

Craig Hepworth & Adele Stanhope

Vertigo Theatre Productions

King's Arms Salford

From 25 November 2014 to 29 November 2014

Review by Andrew Edwards

For a year or two in the early 1970s, it seemed like American pornography was teetering on the brink of going mainstream. Porno was suddenly, albeit briefly, very chic.

This is the era covered in the production which tells what happened to the stars of the infamous hardcore film Deep Throat. Released in 1972 and marketed as the first erotic feature film, it was made on a budget of $25,000. Some estimates assess it has since made many hundreds of millions more.

The main character is Harry Reems, the male lead of the film, although his co-star Linda Lovelace is also portrayed. Told in a fast-paced cinematic style, we are shown the way that struggling New York actor Herbert Streicher gets involved in the so called stag films or “loops“ to make a bit of extra money.

Before long he has been taken up by seedy film maker Gerry Damiano and, with promises of becoming a huge mainstream star, is offered a part in the movie which will change his life and the erotic industry forever. He only discovers once the film is made that his name has been changed to Harry Reems and from then on he is stuck with it. The piece shows the difficulty of moving on from porn into the legit film world or different life altogether.

The set has two playing areas. One is a cinema screen on a stage and the other is the area below just in front of the audience and great use is made of both. The film projections add to the settings or help to show time passing and so on. The period is also cleverly evoked with collages of '70s newspapers and erotic publications running up and down the two side panels.

While there is nudity, it's not as much as one might expect for a play about the '70s sex industry. This is a positive as it’s the exploration of the lives of the two leads which is being focussed on and not any prurient or gratuitous display. We see how Harry’s involvement leads to strains with his relationship with his mother and to difficulties in developing any lasting loving partnerships.

While Harry does for a while live the sex and drugs and rock 'n’ roll lifestyle, he is not exactly happy and this experience is in fact contrasted with the abusive marriage to Chuck which Linda endures. We see both characters battle to leave the porn industry. The play is cleverly placed into its context of social unease in the post-Vietnam and Watergate eras.

The staging of the famous scene from the film is very well done, getting the balance right between the humour and the mock seriousness of the pseudo-medical theme. The cast convince with the frank depictions of sex whether in front of the camera or in a seedy motel room. We do also get to see a short extract of the original film along the way.

The standout scene is the courtroom in the second act where Harry is prosecuted for spreading pornography across state lines. This is a tour de force for all concerned and is hugely funny with in particular its cast of redneck judge and jury and swaggering prosecution attorney sporting his beloved Stetson.

The cast all acquit themselves with honour. Richard Allen shows us a Harry who is drawn into a world from which he cannot quite free himself, although the coda does reveal that the real Harry did eventually translate into a new life in the Mormon community.

Sporting an appropriate '70s moustache, Richard handles the nudity and the alcoholism with aplomb and really holds the entire proceedings together over the two hours run time supremely well. We see both the charm and the vulnerability. Richard clearly has the charisma of a leading movie actor and this is possibly his finest portrayal to date. 

Hannah Ellis as Linda has to straddle the difficult role of showing a sexually free porn performer in public contrasted with the insecure and abused wife in private. She conveys this very well along with a number of cameos as reporter and young prostitute. The violence her character undergoes at the hands of her husband is very difficult to witness yet is not gratuitous.

Ash Preston is powerful both as Linda’s violent partner Chuck but also Harry’s best friend, the gentle writer Bill. He shows a fine range to manage both extremes. Stuart Reeve excels as the seedy Gerry who is torn between wanting mainstream success but also liking the instant hit of porn lucre. He also commands the stage as the fulminating yet smarmy prosecuting attorney in the court scenes.

Andrew Marsden offers a nice line in nervy characters which includes the on-set electrician and the long suffering defence barrister who has to cope with a very drunk and disorderly client in Harry. Andrew’s resigning President Nixon is also memorable.

Paul Worral has so many characters it’s difficult to keep count, but all are realised with an individuality and brio which make them very memorable. Perhaps this reviewer’s favourite is the mobster producer who requires to see Harry’s famed manhood. Paul’s Al Goldstein impersonation and redneck juror are also very funny. His physical comedy skills are hugely impressive.

Chiara Tansey all but steals the show in her performance as the judge in the court scenes. She is so partial to the prosecution it’s truly hilarious. Chiara also offers a great jaded porn star with a nice range of one-liners. She reminded this reviewer of the late Eve Arden in light of these. The other character which touches is when she plays Harry’s Mum who has to cope with the publicity about her much loved but misunderstood offspring.

There is great use of humour throughout such as the sex education film parody with its heaving male and female coupling at odds with the turgid voice over. There are also very effective group scenes which include a rowdy counter-culture demonstration and numerous corrupt officials who get their just desserts.

The pacing overall is very good, although it does slightly flag towards the end in an extended fantasy sequence. This does not deflect however from the overall impact of an extraordinary ensemble production. The finale where Harry talks about his later life is particularly touching.

This is substantial adult fare with nudity, violence and swearing. It is also very fine theatre. Writer-directors Craig Hepworth and Adele Stanhope are to be commended for the inventiveness energy and courage with which they tackle such potentially difficult themes without judging their characters or their predicaments. They pull it off with gusto.