The Sex Party at Menier Chocolate Factory – review
Terry Johnson's comedy runs until 7 January in the newly refurbished venue
I'll say this for Terry Johnson's new play, which reopens the Chocolate Factory after a protracted closure: it will give you plenty to talk about afterwards. Johnson, who returns to the address where he's enjoyed previous successes including his multi award-winning production of La Cage Aux Folles, dives headfirst into a range of hot button issues, notably trans rights. And he does it through the attention-grabbing medium of a sex comedy.
Now, first things first. There are some sharp one-liners, a sprinkling of impressive performances and a gorgeous kitchen set that looks like a double-page spread from Living Etc. However. There are also some frankly gobsmacking stereotypes, a woefully misjudged central conceit and a proliferation of delicate themes handled with all the sensitivity – to quote Malcolm Tucker – of a clown in a minefield (but then, that is kind of the point).
Fifity-something Alex (Jason Merrells) and his younger girlfriend Hetty (Molly Osborne) are welcoming guests to their Islington townhouse for a boozy evening of hedonistic partner-swapping. Or at least, that's the plan. Joining the action are Gilly (Lisa Dwan), who has history with Alex, a fact not lost on jealous husband Jake (John Hopkins). Then there's American alpha Jeff (Timothy Hutton - making his London stage debut) and his heavily-accented yet plain speaking Russian wife Magdalena (Amanda Ryan), and posh druggie Tim (Will Barton) with his right-on partner Camilla (Kelly Price).
The first act unfolds in a fairly pedestrian way as the couples awkwardly get to know each other and swap opinions on issues ranging from politics to the merits of Graham Norton's wine range. The sex largely happens offstage in the living room, with moans and groans filtering into the kitchen, where those who are not involved speculate on the state of their relationships and how they discovered the free-love lifestyle.
The tone takes a decided shift when transgender woman Lucy (Pooya Mohseni) arrives. She provokes a range of reactions from the guests that are as crass as they are predictable, leading the second act to become a sort of dramatised twitter thread. There are funny moments, such as when Tim blurts out "so what do you think about the JK Rowling stuff?" – a question every social gathering dreads. But there are also too many occasions when characters voice opinions that feel horribly contrived. "Self-identity poses a threat to the nuclear family," posits Jeff in one of several lines that feels like the headline of a blog.
In some ways, there's a commendable boldness in the way Johnson sets out to explore this tricky territory. The play certainly isn't afraid to air some fairly unpalatable viewpoints, and is anything but dull. It's all staged and performed with panache – this is a stellar ensemble – and plushly designed by Tim Shorthall, perfectly evoking the milieu of the metropolitan elite. There are also some enjoyable music choices from sound designer John Leonard ("Come Together" and "Both Sides Now", for example).
But the overall impression is that Johnson has tried to cram far too much into one play, mainly in the aim of stirring up a wokey hornet's nest, and the message simply doesn't fit the vehicle. Mohseni, who is herself a transgender activist, gives a compelling performance as Lucy. But the play surrounds her with ciphers voicing lines of argument that thankfully in reality tend to be more nuanced. The weird final twist sums it up, feeling both conveniently contrived and tonally awkward.