Prostitution is a challenging topic to explore in theatre: it is shrouded in a veil that is part sleaze and part glamour, is full of contradictions and is highly vulnerable to damaging stereotyping. Playwright Alecky Blythe however successfully negotiates these difficulties and offers us a captivating and insightful vision of this usually hidden world.
The process that brought The Girlfriend Experience to the stage was a highly original one. Blythe spent a year visiting at a prostitutes' parlour, talking to the middle-aged women who worked there and collecting more than 100 hours of audio recordings. Rather than working from a written verbatim script the actors mimic the voices on the edited tapes as they are played live via headphones during rehearsals and performances. The effect of this device – at times somewhat distracting in itself – is to ensure that the actors represent the prostitutes as they actually were in those moments, rather than layering their own ideas of character on top. It is a magnificently employed tool: the realism is palpable and director Joe Hill-Gibbins should be applauded for the subtlety with which he has addressed these topics.
The play itself charts daily life at the parlour: the quirks, banalities and victories of these women’s working lives are laid before us in as objective a manner as possible. The parlour is far from seedy; it was set up, we learn, by Tessa (played by the brilliant Debbie Chazen) as a more comfortable alternative to the dependence of brothel working and all its consequent irritations. In the faux domestic environment of the flat Tessa and her colleagues can offer what they describe as ‘the girlfriend experience’, a more personal service that goes beyond the merely physical.
Over the course of the play we come to know Tessa and her colleagues, sympathising with them over family illnesses, laughing with them at clients’ foibles and seeing a side to prostitution that must be alien to most audience members. The script, which exactly reflects the normal speech patterns of the prostitutes and punters, is full of interruptions, digressions and hesitations. Acting along to an audio recording can be no easy task but the cast acquit themselves remarkably well.
Suzie (Beatie Edney) and Tessa are a hugely likeable pair whose infectious optimism and irreverent humour is a joy to witness. These are women you can’t help but want to meet. Although Chazen and Beatie steal the show, Lu Corfield as Poppy and Esther Coles as Amber are also enthralling to watch as they give physical form to the words they are fed.
If you missed this show during its run at the Royal Court last autumn, do not make the same mistake again. Touching, challenging and immensely entertaining, The Girlfriend Experience is as good a piece of theatre as you could wish to see.