1972: The Future of Sex
The Wardrobe Ensemble
The Weston Studio, Bristol Old Vic
In rewinding the decades to the early 1970s, The Wardrobe Ensemble’s infectiously silly, sad and true take on adolescent sexuality reminds us that while the clothes and music may change over the years, the initial awkwardness and tentative first steps toward self-discovery remain the same.
It’s a welcome return for this production to the ensemble’s home city of Bristol, having toured around the UK since its première in 2015.
1972 was supposedly the Age of Aquarius: a drug-induced, hallucinogenic uprising of permissive free love, loosening society’s rigid grip. David Bowie was in his Ziggy Stardust phase and androgyny was hip. It’s easy to see this as a simpler, more innocently loving time, pre-Internet porn and its heightened expectations. But try telling that to the couples we first meet, lined up like rabbits caught in the headlights, in this hour-long exploration of the eggshells we tread on when tentatively negotiating intimate relationships.
Hannah Kamen’s Christine decides she’s going to sleep with her rock band boyfriend Rich (Ben Vardy) but begins to worry about the mechanics and decides that watching the luridly erotic film Deep Throat will show her all she needs to know. In an era when Gay Pride is in its infancy, Anna (Jesse Meadows) spots Emily Greenslade’s Tessa across the racks of albums in a record shop and decides she’s the coolest person she’s ever seen.
Penny (Helena Middleton) explores feminist theories and D H Lawrence’s scandalous Lady Chatterley’s Lover with her sociology lecturer Martin (a gyrating performance from Tom England), before discovering his theoretical enlightenment doesn’t always stretch to practical equality. Meanwhile, Bowie-inspired Anton (James Newton) examines his sexuality alone in his bedroom; dressing and undressing in borrowed clothes, but afraid of revealing himself to his parents.
Co-directors Tom Brennan and Jesse Jones have great fun intercutting characters and action, strongly assisted by Tom Crosley-Thorne’s evocative live music and Rachael Duthie’s striking lighting design. Running between their four microphone stands as though they are outposts in a game of rounders, the ensemble delivers narrative, song and innermost thoughts, before quickly resetting to the next scene.
There’s clever period detail in costumes and references—space hoppers, glam rock glitter and Angel Delight—and some standout moments: Anna’s physical ecstasy at Tessa’s proposition sees her lifted and floating across the room while Tom England continues his confused contortions as the ever-dancing Brian deserted by his partner.
Flashes forward link this youthful retrospective to present-day middle-aged disappointment, and it doesn’t end well; opportunities for real love are lost and chance meetings in later life puncture the balloon of illusion. Even Germaine Greer falls short in the end, the lauded writer of The Female Eunuch scraping the barrel with her appearance on Celebrity Big Brother.
It’s inventive and energetic stuff; sometimes rough around the edges but fizzing with creativity. The more things change, the more they stay the same in this rite of passage; it’s the universality of that message that elevates 1972: The Future of Sex into a more thoughtful and reflective work than it first appears.