Review: See Me Now (Young Vic Theatre)
A entirely riveting evening spent in the company of sex workers
For honesty, emotional impact and authentic revelation, See Me Now is an extraordinary piece of theatre. Part show, part confessional therapy session and entirely riveting, it defies normal judgement as it allows eleven people who have been or are sex workers – male, female, and transgender – to tell their stories.
In doing so, they reveal just how various their personalities and their views of their industry are. They range from Adorable, trafficked for sex from her native Nigeria and kept in a flat for four years, to Flynt, bi-lingual and suave, who makes his living as an escort for wealthy women who take him to tennis and cocktail parties. There's Dee, a singer, who became a prostitute to support her crack addiction and Jane, who liked to "smoke before I blow" feeding her multiple addictions with sex. Then there's Governess Elizabeth, a dominatrix, who owns her own dungeon and is studying to be a psychotherapist. Or Peter, a sprightly, smartly-dressed 67 year- old, who specialises in sex with straight men. And Beth, an aspiring actress, fighting to decriminalise sex work, who says her experience in a police cell was more demoralising and debasing than any in a brothel.
Each and every one of them has a fascinating story and they tell them with pride and defiance. Whether like Ric they have actively chosen their course in life or Zariya who fell into it after being abused as a child they emerge, beautifully, in their own words – shaped by playwright Molly Taylor – and by the end of the 100-minutes running time, it is impossible not to feel emotionally engaged with them.
The fact that they are not actors, simply – under the auspices of the Young Vic's enterprising Taking Part programme – speaking out about their own experience, makes it impossible to judge the evening as a piece of theatre. Its aims and its impact lie elsewhere. On Katrina Lindsay's impeccably designed set, and under Mimi Poskitt's light-handed but sophisticated direction, it is messy, sprawling, occasionally stuttering and slightly-overlong.
Although one performer, B, provides sprightly imitations of famous prostitutes past from Messalina to Cynthia Payne, and although there is a song, a dance and a smattering of political protest, the main thrust of the mood is confessional. It is both the feelings and the detail revealed that are so fascinating; one might imagine that a rule of sex work would be to get the money up front, but you are less likely to picture a brothel full of Romanian girls turning away punters so they can watch the BBC's Bleak House.
It is often funny, and sharply observed, but emotions run close to the surface and sometimes break through anecdote and memory. When Pan finally declares "this face is mine", the transgender campaigner sums up what the audience has learnt; to see clearly, to look hard, to understand.
See Me Now runs at the Young Vic until 4 March.