Nearly 50 years ago, in Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Dudley Sutton memorably played the ambiguous young man whose affections are fought over by brother and sister. Now, still incomparably louche, he plays Lesley, the older man in a similar triangle. Unfortunately, despite the publicity emphasising how outrageous Queen of the Nile is, Tim Fountain’s play lacks the ability of Joe Orton’s nasty little shocker to appal and to amuse.
To begin with, it’s rather conventional – and, in Mike Bradwell’s production, lacking pace. Debbie is a stereotypically gross 41-year-old in a dead-end job in Wakefield, with over-abundant appetites for sex and booze that leave her pretty much unsatisfied. Her respectable keep-fit fanatic of a friend, Jan (Michelle Butterly effective enough, but with little to do), finds herself temporarily husband-less with a cultural week in Egypt booked and paid for, so Debbie talks her way on to the holiday. Jan follows the guide book, Debbie follows the men. Jan enjoys foreign food, Debbie endures violent diarrhoea. Then Debbie falls for young Mahmoud, who takes tourist trips on his felucca, but Lesley, the camp restaurateur, is already playing sexy waiter-and-customer games with Mahmoud.
The growing unrest of the Arab Spring is the background to these events, but it is not until late in the play that it is in any way integrated into the action. The second half generally is a big improvement, with some unexpected turns of plot and some signs of depth of characterisation. Lizzie Roper, initially simply loud and obvious as Debbie, shows more humanity and begins to stake some claim on our sympathy, and Mahmoud, always the most convincing character as played by Asif Khan, moves nearer the centre of the action.
In the programme Mike Bradwell asserts that he wants to “make dirty and dangerous theatre”. In concept Queen of the Nile is both dirty and dangerous, but in reality it’s rather dull, though a pleasant enough two hours in the theatre. Interestingly a modest Tuesday night audience, though reasonably appreciative, never gasped and seldom laughed. Plaudits, though, for the design team of Mila Sanders, Jason Taylor and Mic Pool: the designs convey the play’s contrasts wittily and imaginatively, with the video inserts especially well-judged.
Queen of the Nile runs at Hull Truck Theatre until 11 May. For further information visit www.hulltruck.co.uk