Horse-Play at Riverside Studios – review
Ian Hallard's kinky comedy continues until 24 September
The great British sex farce is back! Gosh, did anybody miss it? No Sex Please, We're British managed over 6,700 West End performances through the 1970s and 1980s, Run For Your Wife achieved a run of nine years between various venues in the 80s, and Not Now, Darling had them rolling in the aisles of the Savoy for several years. It was a peculiarly British phenomenon that never travelled well. Sexual repression married to light-hearted misanthropy, it wasn't successful abroad (the Broadway version of No Sex ran 16 performances), and it's a theatrical genre one didn't expect to see again. But yet, here comes Ian Hallard's racy 21st-century take, and, this being 2022, a modern equivalent is perhaps inevitably gay, with a capital G, a lot more explicit, but ultimately just as essentially harmless and unsexy.
But because it's gay, it's automatically hilarious and edgy, yes? Actually, no: light of wit and insight but heavy on ham-fisted exposition and relentless innuendo, when it's not just flat-out crude, Horse-Play aims to be a joyfully naughty comedy but could be a bit of an endurance test if this sort of humour isn't your thing (and, to be fair, the gales of laughter on press night would suggest that there are plenty of people for whom this is very much their thing).
Set in a sex dungeon where husbands Tim and Tom (their names are actually one of the jokes in the script, which gives you some idea of the level of humour here) are treating themselves to a night of superhero cosplay with hunky Karl, dressed up as supervillain Villainor (an appealing Matt Lapinskas) which goes wrong when Karl trips over and passes out, leaving Tim tied to a table and Tom locked in a cage. What follows is a game of ‘will-they-won't-they' where the husbands bicker and moan, and where little that comes out of anybody's mouth sounds plausible.
If you ever hoped to see someone wet themselves onstage, or a bunch of characters use different varieties of intimate lubricant, as opposed to water, to orally rehydrate, then Horse-Play is your show. If, however, you like your humour character-driven with a lightly borne comprehension of the human condition and the understanding of the close proximity of comedy to tragedy then yeah…this isn't for you. There's no real character development, just loads of banter and comedy shtick that isn't particularly original but acquires a certain frisson when performed in skin-tight spandex and masks.
A spark of dramatic interest ignites when a frustrated Tim screams at the unwilling Karl that they'd paid for him and thus they own him, but instead of exploring the unpalatable exploitation of the sex industry (which would, in all fairness, entail Horse-Play becoming quite a different piece), Hallard has his characters go back to sniping and sexual innuendo. One might have hoped that at least we'd be spared the casual racism and misogyny inherent in this brand of comedy's antecedents but alas not…we get a (mercifully brief) appearance from a barely coherent Eastern European cleaner and the only solid female character is a hard-as-nails sex worker with a mouth like a sewer and zero inner life. Stephanie Siadatan does spirited work with the paltriness of what she's been given.
It's an indication of the sloppiness of Andrew Beckett's under-rehearsed production that the oft-repeated punching in of a security passcode that would free the characters (and us) from this sex dungeon, is clearly visible from the audience, and – at least from where I was sitting – entered differently each time. That might be more forgivable if the actual numbers of the passcode weren't actually spoken out loud later in the script. To be honest though, that's the least of this show's problems.
On the plus side, David Ames is genuinely engaging as one of the husbands, a sassy guy with an impressively comprehensive working knowledge of hi-glam, mid-80s American soap operas. For the second time this year (the first being Steve, which opened Seven Dials Playhouse), Ames tethers a natural comic flair and lovely stage presence to a sub-standard script. I can't wait to see him in something more deserving of his talent. Jake Maskall has some sweet moments opposite him as Tom, with a cute running joke that his self-made "horse" mask looks more like a pigeon. Nick Sampson is very funny as the dungeon owner who appears at the last moment like a rumpled, suburban Deux ex Machina.
Heartless, puerile and only intermittently amusing (who knew extreme sexual behaviour could be this tedious?), Horse-Play neither truly shocks nor delights. Having said that, more unlikely shows than this have become solid cult hits.