Earlier this year, the Young Vic handed over its stage to a group of sex workers for See Me Now. It was a beautifully crafted, devised show in which personal stories were told, and perceptions about those working in the industry were challenged in almost every line and gaze.
First performed in 2014, this piece by Experimental Experience occupies similar territory. It draws on the stories of sex workers around the world, and is performed by a cast of professional actors and those who have earned a living through the sex trade. It makes us really listen to these experts in their own lives, rather than falling back on the media cliches that often cast them as bad or sad.
The show’s strength is that it blurs the boundaries between who is playing a character and who is performing themselves. The design conjures both a theatre and the backstage world of the dressing room. Sex work, like acting, involves performing.
The piece offers an intimate experience in which we start to feel we know these people: the disabled prostitute who specialises in disabled clients; the mother with a teenage daughter who social services think might be at risk because of mum’s job. The point is effectively made that many sex workers are people just like you and me who have chosen to do a particular job because the hours suit, they like working with people and they find it better paid than, say, working on a supermarket checkout or being a theatre critic.
The show boasts an irreverent sly wit as it repeatedly subverts the stereotypes, often with jaunty accompaniment that takes magpie glee in borrowing from different musical styles. The operatic 19th-century image of the consumptive courtesan is wickedly sent up; the boredom of satisfying clients’ mundane fantasies is neatly handled. It tips a knowing wink to titillation in a pole-dancing sequence performed with sexy acrobatic flair.
Nonetheless this is quite a ramshackle affair, often more passionate than theatrically accomplished, and sometimes quite clumsy in the central conceit that sees one character so appalled by her sister’s career choice that she tries to persuade her to change jobs. It’s too long, too repetitive and needs a good edit: in trying to honour its source material, it attempts to stuff in too many stories and issues. But the cast and band always ensure this is a warmly engaging evening.