Lloyd Evans

Porn and propaganda

Porn &mdash; The Musical<br /> Theatre 503, until 1 May Posh<br /> Royal Court, until 22 May

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Porn — The Musical

Theatre 503, until 1 May

Posh

Royal Court, until 22 May

Here’s the rule. Provocative title equals lousy show. The playbill Porn — The Musical filled my heart with misgivings as I made the long trek south of the Thames to a venue at a Battersea boozer. The room above the pub was huge and empty, but the theatre wasn’t here but higher up, via a trapdoor, wedged in under the beery roof-eaves. A fug of lavender and sawdust hung over the creaking benches and the stage was the size of a card-table. As I took my seat, a furry insect expired in midair and landed in the retro hairstyle just ahead of me. A moth in a beehive.

Then the show began and everything perked up. The storyline is a parody of a parody, a boy-meets-girl fairy tale involving a penniless Maltese, Stefan, who falls for a porn queen in LA. The fusion of seedy smut and puckish comedy is divinely inspired, and the show gleefully mocks every target available, including itself. The narrator is a suave curmudgeon who can’t disguise his contempt for the script. And he has some of the best lines. ‘Fate was about to unload over Stefan like a football team on a lapdancer.’

Apart from its wit and infectious zest, the show has one additional advantage: it adores the genre it mocks. And by taking a paradoxically chaste approach it scores extra comedy points. Porn is alluded to, and pastiched, but the full-frontal bodycount stands at a coy zero. A striptease is performed behind improvised screens held up by cast members who signal outraged virtue by widening their eyes and covering their open mouths with splayed fingers. The tunes are good, bordering on excellent. A bluegrass number, ‘I’m Sanddy with a Double-D’, has entered my head on a long-term lease.

This show could go somewhere interesting. Though it’s not all there yet it’s three quarters of the way and the newspaper omens are promising. The Guardian gave it a carpeting because it ‘didn’t take its subject seriously’ and couldn’t decide ‘whether porn fulfilled a vital function or offered a degradation of sex’. That’s a funny gag. They should work it in. 

The Royal Court has welcomed a new play about an Oxford dining society by the excellent writer Laura Wade. She specialises in the subtle intimacies of metrosexual relationships and this subject lies way outside her usual range. She decides to mock the bunfight by turning it into a logistical disaster. The wine’s wrong, the charlie’s missing, the hoorays can’t smoke in the dining room, and the poultry dish is two species short of ‘a ten-bird roast’. The aristos are completely cowed by these petty mishaps and they spend ages discussing their right to complain to the landlord. Protocol obsesses them. When not parroting class-war claptrap, or indulging in Shakespearean parodies, they compete with each other to recite arcane factoids from the club’s rules on ceremony. A prostitute arrives but, alas for the braying braggarts, she immediately goes on strike. She was expecting a single client, not a group. Will she accept a tenfold increase in the night’s takings? Not a chance. Even bribery won’t move her. She’s not in it for the money, apparently; she’s a stickler for procedure.

None of this rings true. Superwealthy posh boys are far more resourceful, sophisticated and hedonistic than Wade wants them to be. Instead of giving them the reckless vitality of lustful young billionaires, she portrays them as a set of UKIP moaners trying to claim a refund on a meal deal at Harvester. Then the play turns into a Labour election broadcast. A ghost appears. The club’s founder, in a powdered wig, harangues the table with a fascist rant. ‘England is yours, boys, take it back.’ Then they trash the restaurant (taking care not to damage the costlier props), and when the landlord kicks up a fuss they beat him half to death like a gang of hoodies. The chief assailant is rewarded, after a creepy meeting with a Tory grandee at a gentlemen’s club, with the offer of a safe seat in the shires.

This is silly in all directions. As drama it’s unsatisfying because the attacker emerges too late as the play’s central character. As propaganda it fails not because it’s too direct — good propaganda is always direct — and not because it appeals only to Soho Marxists, but because it’s untrue. There is no old-boy network that can bypass the justice system, exculpate a paranoid thug and fast-track him into the Tory shadow cabinet. And why would it want to? A power network is self-interested. It promotes talent, not unhinged criminality. As with Porn — The Musical, the writer’s intentions are crucial. Wade reviles these characters and never gives them a chance. Mind you, a pro-Labour advert at the Royal Court? It’ll do roaring business.