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We Want You To Watch (NT, Temporary Theatre)

Alice Birch and RashDash's latest show fails to impress

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Abbi Greenland, Helena Lymbery and Helen Goalen
© Richard Davenport

Actually, Alice Birch and RashDash really don't want you to watch. Violent pornography, that is. Given the chance, both playwright and physical theatre duo would impose a blanket ban – not just on the stomach-churning stuff, the simulated rape and the torture porn, but on the whole lot of it: hardcore, softcore, backdoor, frontdoor, plumbers and babysitters all.

Only they're also good little libertarians and banning things isn't really the done thing. Even if, as they insist, the majority of porn has a detrimental effect on the world – at the very least, in the way it shifts sexual norms and expectations towards exploitation – a ban would steamroll over all those consenting adults, viewers and makers alike, who use it freely for their own ends, be that enjoyment or employment.

I'd happily have watched Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland attempt to make that case – to really make that case – onstage with all the righteousness and rigour they can muster. They're careful with their caveats and absolutely aware of the knots they tie themselves up in. "YOU don't like it," comes one reply, "and you think that gives you the right to take it away from everyone else". Instead, they charge headlong into a string of outlandish metaphors.

They start as two cops interrogating a bloodied man over murders potentially, but indemonstrably, linked to abusive porn. Each time he fobs off their accusations – "Millions of people watch violent porn… then they do a fun run for cancer research" – they slump a little lower; ardent feminists beaten by reason. Elsewhere they ballgown-up to pester the Queen into making a decree and protect a young child from lost innocence with a gunshot to the head. They dance to the tune of a teenage hacker, humping one another at her command, in the hope she'll turn off the net.

And every time they fail to convince, the porn count keeps rising. A gang of Agent Smith-style suits deliver crate upon crate of Warholian canned sex to the stage.

It's this need to illustrate, to dress every point up and make a joke out of it, that smacks of immaturity. If the point is that puritan piety won't hold our attention, that desperation leads to escalation just as the porn industry stoops ever lower, it doesn't land. It's a bells-and-whistles show that doesn't trust us to focus. In fact, it's the excess that distracts. Their diligent argument bloats and repeats and, as we get one step ahead, it looks increasingly simplistic and naïve.

The pity is that it's self-aware enough to conclude in well-meaning failure, an urge "to begin again and make something new". An old man stumbles on, in need of real help, and Goalen and Greenland drop their doggedness to make an actual difference.

There are flickers of brilliance within. A danced demonstration of torture porn is an affronting sight, as Greenland tosses her partner around like a basketball and shakes her like a pneumatic drill. The sight of QE2 dancing the delight of good sex (a delicious cameo from Helena Lymbery) both humanises the act and makes a neat point about reality and representation.

Birch's writing can cut the issue to the bone – especially that speech to the schoolboy, charting his entire life through pornography – and Caroline Steinbeis directs with a lively lightness on Oliver Townsend's sideshow-style set, and yet, for all that, the show's as tiresome as it is tirading. Pity.

We Want You to Watch runs at the National Theatre's Temporary Theatre until 11 July before touring the UK

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