The Prudes review – a couple's very public attempt to revive their sex life

Jess and Jimmy are in their late 30s and have been together for nine years. They haven’t had sex in 14 months and four days. This is their last-ditch attempt, and they’re doing it in public, addressing the audience directly. The pillows are ready on the floor in a room resembling a pink, fluffy womb (designed by Fly Davis), the wine is cooled, the music cheesy. This couple still find each other attractive and make each other laugh. So why aren’t they doing it?

Last November, as the #MeToo movement gathered pace, Rachel Mars and Nat Tarrab bravely offered a dispatch from the frontline of gender politics in Roller. Now Anthony Neilson uses one couple to consider the male reaction to #MeToo. It is billed as satire, but although often laugh-out-loud funny and well-meaning, it’s pretty toothless.

Jimmy brings to mind those commentators who muse about whether women speaking out on sexual harassment may be killing romance. Or those men who have been making calls apologising for past behaviour for fear that they may be called out. Like Jimmy, they want “things to be all right again”. Basically, as they always were.

Never gets beyond the bedroom … The Prudes. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Until pretty recently, most theatre was about men; one of the problems with The Prudes is that it is mostly all about Jimmy. That’s no criticism of Jonjo O’Neill, who plays him with a sly mix of little-boy hurt and charm. But there is something trite in the set-up: essentially, Jess (the estimable Sophie Russell) has made him impotent because he found out about something that happened to her. They have agreed not to share what it was with us, but he does anyway. He appropriates her story. There’s been much talk around #MeToo about women as victims but, like some male commentators, it’s Jimmy who claims victimhood.

One of the best parts of the play is when Jess talks about her seven-year-old niece’s need to keep hearing the story of Goldilocks and understands that all women have learned how to live with the bears marauding in the woods and play bear-tamer.

Masturbation, pornography and fantasy are all raised but not fully explored, and there’s not enough about consent (for men as well as women), or indeed equal pay and opportunity. The #MeToo movement is not just about what happens in the bedroom, but The Prudes never gets beyond it.

At the Royal Court, London, until 2 June. Box office: 020-7565 5000.

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