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A CurtainUp London Review
The Prudes

"Marriage is a relict of the male patriarchy. . . unless you're gay." — James
The Prudes
Jonjo O'Neill and Sophie Russell (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
It says it is written and directed by Anthony Neilson but they explained to me at the Box Office that there was no script because it is a devised piece. That means I cannot be sure that what I was seeing on that Thursday afternoon matinee was what others had seen or will see in future. Of course other Anthony Neilson devised pieces at the Royal Court have been published but it seemed churlish to point this out.

This is what the audience have been told before the show:
"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."
So in the small Jerwood Upstairs Space at the Royal Court, Fly Davis has designed a boudoir. Festooned swags of pink silk hang from the ceiling, there's lace, carpeting and pink soft lighting turning lavender, and a central area larger than any double bed lined with foam, no sheets, and a couple of frilly edged pillows.

Jess (Sophie Russell) and James (Jonjo O'Neill) sit on stools on the fourth side of the square. In between then is an orchid and a bottle of wine. They have decided to have sex here tonight in front of the audience, that they talk about, and to. They discuss sex in a seemingly open way. But Jess keeps a diary and that is why she is able to be exact as to when they last had sex. "Fourteen months and four days," she volunteers. He squirms a bit.

As they explore why they haven't had sex, they tell us it isn't because of the children because they have no children. They have both been to therapy but don't tell us why or what kind of therapy. It seems that James has erectile dysfunction but only with Jess; his ability to masturbate to climax with porn is unaffected.

Although the piece is called The Prudes I am not sure who the prudes are. Perhaps it was the women who walked out after about an hour who maybe hadn't read the Royal Court's description of the play first?

So attaching the dysfunction to a very likeable James, Jess starts to ask questions which get more intense. She talks about the tale of "Goldilocks" and how the lesson is for a little girl who stumbles into someone else's house, eats someone else's porridge, breaks a chair and falls asleep in someone else's bed. Jess says the onus is on girls to get it just right and that life is full of bears.

This review sounds a bit serious when in fact there is much to smile at in the discussions of sexual encounters. In the wake of the "Me Too" events, James wonders when, as a student, whether waking up his girlfriend to have sex with her was fully consensual or not? Is Neilson's implication that the "Me Too" revelations have had an emasculating effect on sensitive men? Jonjo O'Neill's James has a charming manner which softens the edges of harsher revelations.

James tells us something Jess asked him not to tell the audience about sexual encounters when she was way under the age of consent, from an older cousin who asked her to do everything sexually, bar penetrative sex. He then asks the audience not to disclose this but Jess asks the audience and is lied to but continues asking, until one woman tells her the truth. Has this history of Jess's affected James' libido?

James gets a dressing up outfit for her of a sexy nurse which she declines to wear but she agrees to another, ostensibly more powerful, and dresses up as Wonderwoman. The audience laughs.

So laughter aside, Neilson would have written or approved this descriptor: The Prudes "Is a vicious satire on the male response to relationships in the current sexual climate." Jess secretly administers Viagra to James, but then she has a headache. Why do I feel that Anthony Neilson is trivialising the serious issues that have emerged in the sexual debate? More stuff to blame. I don't agree with those who want a female dominated theatre culture instead of a male dominated one. Many excellent women writers have emerged from the system as it is. I want a theatre culture not dominated by either gender or sexuality.

The Prudes felt for me like a soft piece of stand up comedy, or not, in the case of those with erectile dysfunction. And who says penetrative sex is the only kind of sex?

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The Prudes
Written and directed by Anthony Neilson
Starring: Jonjo O'Neill and Sophie Russell
Design: Fly Davis
Sound Design: Nick Powell
Lighting Design: Chahine Yavroyan
Running time: One hour 20 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 2nd June 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 26th April 2018 matinee performance at the Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AS (Tube: Sloane Square)
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The Prudes