5 times theatre got sex right

As their festival of sex kicks off, Camden People’s Theatre’s executive director Amber Massie-Blomfield considers her favourite sexual representations on stage

Genevieve Barr and Arthur Hughes in The Solid Life of Sugar Water.
Genevieve Barr and Arthur Hughes in The Solid Life of Sugar Water.
© Patrick Baldwin

To mark the opening of Hotbed: A Festival of Sex, at Camden People’s Theatre this week, the theatre's executive director Amber Massie-Blomfield picks her top five depictions of sex on stage.

Click here to read more about the Hotbed festival

1. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

Ancient Greece, 411 BCE. The Peloponnesian War has been rumbling along for years with no signs of stopping. So Lysistrata decides to do something about it – she leads a sex strike, with the women of the state denying their menfolk any nooky until the war comes to an end. Although there’s no actual sex on stage in this play – rather a conspicuous lack of it – for its brilliant portrayal of women taking control of their own sexuality, and its takeaway message that sex trumps war, it’s well deserving of its place on this list.

2. Mae West’s Sex

Perhaps more notable for the scandal it created than the artistic quality of the work, Mae West’s 1926 play charting the experiences of a New York prostitute came with an ad warning punters: 'if you cannot stand excitement – see your doctor before visiting'. West placed the female experience of sexuality centre stage, and the ensuing controversy resulted in her imprisonment – a turn of events West co-opted as a useful publicity opportunity for the show. The play made her an icon, and she used her celebrity to break gender and sexual barriers throughout her career.

3. Improbable’s Beauty and the Beast

A very x-rated take on the classic tale, Improbable’s Beauty and the Beast featured a high quota of nudity and nosh. The creators and stars of the production were real life couple Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz, who met while performing in the world of cabaret. It’s an art form that’s leagues ahead of theatre in terms of sex and body positivity, and artists like Ursula Martinez and Ophelia Bitz deserve special mention.

4. Jack Thorne’s The Solid Life of Sugar Water

The Solid Life of Sugar Water, about a couple losing a baby at a late stage of pregnancy, originally performed by Graeae, a company that works with deaf and disabled artists, takes place almost entirely in bed. With his characteristic nuance and attention to the complexity of what it means to be human, Thorne unfolds the many different ways in which sex connects us – how it can be awkward, funny and, ultimately, healing.

5. Ponyboy Curtis

Chris Goode set up this company in part with the aim of making theatre 'less hopelessly bad at sex'. Performances by his all-male ensemble are unique each night, following an improvisational structure to create some of the most genuine and sexy exchanges I’ve ever seen on stage. In a frightening world where an individual’s sexuality can still lead to their persecution, witnessing this kind of positive, unblinking presentation of human tenderness as expressed through physicality feels like a radical, important act.

Hotbed: A Festival About Sex will run at Camden People's Theatre from 25 April to 14 May.