The Prudes

About five minutes in to the therapy session cum comedy gig cum This Morning Celeb Interview that tonally is The Prudes, late 30s couple Jess and Jimmy inform the audience as their ‘Confessor’ (to be all three it makes us a cardigan wearing, lager drinking, silver fox) that they are not actually called Mr and Mrs Prude as that would be ridiculous. And that they are not even married. This revelation is rare as being one of only a few of the very many personal and intimate details they go on to (over)share during the squirmingly funny hour and a bit, that wouldn’t require a #TMI. It’s their final attempt at breaking down any issues or barriers in order to bring sex back after a 14 month (and four day, Jess’ diary reminds) hiatus from their 9 year relationship. For as Jess says, “a relationship without sex? You may as well get a dog.”

In satirising the world of 2018 it can’t be seen as anything but a disappointing opportunity lost.

But it does set tone, context and expectation for what will and won’t happen in this lush carpeted, pink bosom of a bedroom that the upstairs space has been turned into by designer Fly Davis; implying a very particular ‘sex’ they mourn, the sex that Agony Aunts are wont to tell us is best as it comes from a place of love. Perched with wine in hand on two bar stools upstage, both very close and yet leagues away from Destination Bed (and all that represents) spread before them, they announce their big plan is to have that sex tonight.. in front of us…right here. As though the pent up pressure will lead to an inevitable release…of sorts. But hold back from ticket purchase a moment, O Live Sex Fan, for I’m afraid this promise is but an empty one. And if you were to replace ‘live sex’ with ‘sharp satirical gender debate post Weinstein et al, as devised and written by Anthony Neilson whose work is known to explore the depths of the psyche’… and the metaphor of expectations being dashed writes itself. Sort of.

They do talk about sex a lot though. There’s a whole orgy of sex stuff – if that’s the correct collective noun – from shared to secret wanks, to light, dark and possibly illegal porn to role play (nurse natch) to our tried and tested topic of the sex gag, dogging. It’s fair to say the whole shebang of embarrassing but not truly offensive is here, delivered with that middle class ‘awkward but trying not to show it’ manner that we are used to seeing from way back when Channel 4 started doing edgy grown up sitcoms. The gags are good though and they are laugh out loud funny, mainly because we are so used to this imbalance of the sexes that we think couples actually do speak like this. They don’t. Ever. It’s funny on TV, theatre or movies, but imagine if Susan and Bob from next door asked over the soufflé whether you actually like it when your partner ejaculated on your face, and you may not guffaw so loudly.

Jonjo O’Neill and Sophie Russell have an immediate and ongoing chemistry that gives a tightness of delivery to what is really a two-handed comedy sketch, delivering seemingly off-the-cuff remarks with precision and deftly landing punchline after punchline within the construct. Both have worked with Neilson before (O’Neill gave the show-stealing performance as Ivan his 2016’s Unreachable) and have used the writer’s co-creation process of developing scripts through improvisations in rehearsals, to build a natural rapport (though the judgmental may question if one of them is aiming way over and above their league!). As with Unreachable – and likely many before – much is made in the pre-show blurb of how Neilson starts with just an idea, leading to rehearsals of nothingness, major last minute character and plot changes taking place and scripts endlessly evolving so that actors are often still ‘on book’ during previews.

And in this context of absolute zeitgeist, you have to evaluate the success of the piece on its own objectives. When you are aware that the brief for The Prudes was to be one of the first theatrical responses to #MeToo, a male response at that and played at The Court, which has been at the heart of the movement, a very funny and pleasant night out just doesn’t seem enough. And when Neilson himself wrote in The Guardian during rehearsals that he was creating “a (fairly vicious) satire…to address the current sexual climate”, what felt like a (strong and modernised) special episode of Friends no longer seems as strong as was intended. Put aside its cultural references to Spacey, Saville and Dua Lipa (the latter for different reasons, included purely as an example of the modern name) and – though the extremities of detail may differ, this is just another serving of Men from Mars (trying and failing to impress) the Women from Venus. It’s not a million miles away from Jack and Vera Duckworth placed in a Victoria Wood sketch. Enjoyable, yes, very. But in satirising the world of 2018, of debate over MeToo and discussion on gender imbalance, it can’t be seen as anything but a disappointing opportunity lost.

(Post Script: Note to Author - Seen as a more general comment on modern relationships, it would take only the smallest of tweaks to make this the perfect companion piece - the 'Act Two: What Happened Next?' if you will - to David Eldridge's 'No Frills' love story, Beginning don't you think? It's got '241 Deal' written all over it!)

Reviews by Simon Smith

Dorfman Theatre

Nine Night

★★★
The Royal Court Theatre

The Prudes

★★★
Royal Court Theatre

Instructions for Correct Assembly

★★★★
National Theatre

Macbeth

★★
Dorfman Theatre

John

★★★
Almeida Theatre

The Twilight Zone

★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Jess and Jimmy haven’t done it in a year. Fourteen months and four days to be exact.

It’s definitely not the seven year itch – they’ve been together nine.

Now they’re coming together in a last-ditch effort to re-boot their sex life and save their relationship. But a lot has changed in a year; for them and for the world.

The Prudes is a comedy about relationships in the current sexual climate; and a vicious satire on the male response to it.