The Girlfriend Experience
What is verbatim theatre for? Well, for this exactly, I think.
Alecky Blythe's stunning account of daily life in a real brothel is taken up by the Young Vic after its original production by the Royal Court and Plymouth's Drum. I can't commend them enough for continuing the life of this remarkable piece of work. The verbatim nature of the piece bypasses the endless, thorny and quite frankly beside-the-point questions about the author's own feelings about prostitution, and the political connotations of putting such subject matter on stage, to tell, quite simply, the story of four women. I can't imagine the same thing being attempted with four fictional characters, without audiences relentlessly trying to pick apart the playwright's intentions and work out which character she is using as a mouthpiece to make which point. But here, it really is death of the author.
Blythe compiled the play from over one hundred hours of audio recorded inside a prostitution parlour. It features four prostitutes, who manage their own small two-room brothel in Bournemouth. None of them are particularly young or glamour-magazine beautiful, but nor are they desperate drug-addled street girls: they're self-employed, down-to-earth women earning a living. Audio recording of the women's speech has been compiled and is fed to the actresses live on stage through headsets: the actresses repeat the lines a second or two after they have heard them, doing their best to replicate exactly the intonation of the recorded speech. They have not seen the script or learnt any lines in advance.
It is a clever notion for getting across the idea, more than in any other verbatim piece I've seen, that the actors really are just vessels for the real, factual people to be made manifest. What we are watching is Tessa, Poppy, Amber and Suzie. It does make for strange meta-theatrical moments when one of the women - as she naturally would during the course of talking to the playwright - mentions how she will feel about seeing the final result on stage, with an actress playing her. The project has put a spotlight on their world, and she speaks of how, as a result, it has also led her to evaluate the life she's leading more than she ever normally would. The piece is truthful about the fact that it is not merely representing life, but has had a direct effect on the lives that it is documenting.
In order to carve out a market niche, and to play to their warm, bubbly, maternal strengths, the women provide a different sort of service - "the girlfriend experience", featuring a more personal sort of intimacy strong on cuddling, kissing, talking and companionship. This is as opposed to the hard, fast and rough "porn star experience" advertised elsewhere. It is fascinating to hear them talk of their work in positive terms: the clients they are fond of, the laughs they have among themselves about the more ridiculous demands.
Suzie, probably the most sentimental of the four, makes a case for their profession being some combination of carer and sex therapist - simply understanding that people have needs, and being in a position to help them. The piece really does leave it up to you to decide your feelings about this, while not avoiding the aspects of the job that are most uncomfortable to watch. We learn that "water sports" refers to the practice of urinating or defecating on men who request that sort of thing. We watch Poppy, the youngest of the four, fending off an insistent punter with a repeated firm "No" as he backs her against a wall and attempts to grope whatever he can get his hands on. In another context this would be an attempted rape scene, and perhaps it is here too - but for her it's an everyday hazard and she simply mutters and brushes away her disgust. It's pretty shocking.
But there's also the marvellous banality of their lives together: the incredible normality they manage to sustain. They talk about dieting and Tessa's daughter's exam results. Their getup is really very far from sexy - painful heels and white flesh bulging out of too-tight lace; with their skimpy negligees there is no mystery, no "reveal", as though this is part of them presenting themselves as straightforward, friendly, up-front girls with no complications.
But of course there are complications, when the professional merges with the personal. They become romantically engaged with clients, only to find time and again that the men still want only one thing from them. They want the girlfriend experience, but not a real girlfriend - this would mean acknowledging the prostitutes as real women with real problems, rather than mere willing tools to help the men with their own escapist fantasies. It's a vital point. The cast show very beautifully how these women exist on the edge of huge loneliness: in each other's company but with few prospects of a genuine relationship coming their way.
Lizzie Clachan's design does a nice job of sketching out loosely the layout of the brothel, with stretches of plasterboard representing the various rooms and passageways. The living room, the women's private communal space, is centre stage while the rooms where business is conducted are offstage. There is also a hatch above the stage through which we see only the feet of various clients as they make their way (ominously? comically?) through the corridor to the women's abode.
The only thing that grated was the concept of live feeding of lines to the actresses. As an intellectual principle it's nice but on stage it's a needless alienation effect: the acting is so good that we actually very much want to believe in the reality of the women we see, rather than the reality of the women in the background who give them their lines. I'm sure this is what the production wants as well: everything is geared towards drawing us in to this warm, complex, complete world. So to have constant halting delivery and messily overlapped lines from the actors is an obstruction rather than anything else. I'm sure they will get slicker throughout the run (and no doubt they will learn a lot of their lines just through nightly repetition) but for now it's a small complaint.
But what a compelling show. Of course, inevitably there are political connotations with this subject matter: as Tessa acknowledges near the end when expressing hope that the piece will take people's perceptions beyond mere Jeremy Kyle-style moralising. But other works (notably Unprotected at the Liverpool Everyman) have dealt valuably with the political debate around legalising prostitution. This play is about the personal, emotional impact of a much agonised over but seldom properly looked at profession. Blythe looks.
Until 15th August
Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury