What does it take to become a prostitute? Youth, beauty, courage, sexual allure, a love of money, a need for hard drugs, an addiction to risk? None of these, according to this fascinating show written and performed by London sex workers. What prostitutes need is the right mindset: humane, adaptable, tolerant, altruistic. Sex work is one of the caring professions. And it attracts operatives of any age, creed or physical configuration. An elegant 67-year-old rent boy explains, with touching humour, that his clients tend to be married men who just happen to be interested in fellatio. ‘Will you put your penis inside my body?’ a shy punter once asked him. ‘Yes, that’s more or less what I do.’ He works in the afternoons. In the mornings he has a cleaning job.
Often the sex itself is peripheral. A dominatrix expresses pity for her alpha-male clients (City grandees and high-court judges), whose high-powered jobs leave them isolated at work, and surrounded by anxious faces and fawning attitudes. They seek respite by inverting their status from master to slave. So they hire her, a pantomime she-monster, to insult them, thrash them and spit on them, often in the lunch hour. The dominatrix has tips for women considering a career in S&M. Always get your slave to steam-clean the sex toys during the session. And carry nail scissors at all times in case he gets inextricably tangled in a leather harness.
The show is marred by some laborious staging effects towards the end, and the closing 20-minute section, where the sex workers deliver their philosophical banalities, deserves to be cut. But there are flashes of unconscious poetry here too. A middle-aged crack addict describes how she fell in love with a tormented young man. ‘There was death behind his eyes.’ They married. They were happy. But his suicide was her ruin. ‘I thought my love killed people.’ Later she describes how she cared for a widowed invalid by giving her a tab of ecstasy and taking her for a trundle in her wheelchair. The trundles were a great success. One of the sex workers argues with simple eloquence that politicians and clerics have, over the centuries, inflicted untold horrors on mankind. But prostitutes have offered nothing but comfort and healing. And yet they’re the ones vilified by the politicians and clerics. Very little theatre work is important or valuable. This is. Here’s a show that may help shift attitudes and neutralise prejudices. It reveals that society could learn a lot about moral honesty, and spiritual generosity, by taking a lesson or two from the people it calls ‘whores’.
In 1962 Anthony Burgess wrote a pretentious book about thugs. A decade later Stanley Kubrick turned it into a picture, probably his worst. After its release some criminals claimed it as the inspiration for their violence. Kubrick immediately halted the film’s exhibition in Britain, his adopted home. Popular rumour established that a ‘government ban’ had been put in place and this glamorous falsehood turned the dud into a hit. And that’s how A Clockwork Orange became one of the most over-rated publications in the English language. This version, by Action To The Word, certainly captures the book’s brutality, narrowness and perverted chic. Alex, a gay thug, assembles a gang of gay thugs. They accost some gay men. Everyone beats each other up. Alex is arrested and tortured by a deluded shrink who believes aggression can be purged by exposure to violent imagery. Released from jail, Alex finds his old gay chums, who are now working for the cops. Everyone beats each other up.
As a piece of theatre this is extremely hard work. All the characters are shallow and revolting and the show keeps insisting on the view that narcissistic aggression is the only strain of human behaviour worthy of our attention. The cast of handsome youngsters appear to have been chosen for their catwalk looks and Mr Universe physiques rather than for their acting skills. The performances are rigid, cold, declarative and inflexible. But so is the script. There’s no room for subtlety, warmth or variety here. The one and only joke (somebody misnames the Home Secretary ‘the minister for the inferior’) is delivered at the decibel level a drowning trawlerman might use when signalling his position to a rescue helicopter. Which slightly ruins it. Undoubtedly, the production is beautiful to look at. Fans of the Cure will relish its references to the lurid stylings of 1980s pop videos. I have a feeling I wasn’t the ideal spectator. Around me at press night were dozens of play-goers watching in open-mouthed rapture. (All men, as it happens.) And is a theatre the best place for this show? Performed at the climax of London fashion week it would delight a crowd willing to applaud its superficial dazzle, its pumped-up masculine vitality and its faintly fascist aesthetic.