Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review: 'Punts' at Theatre503, 5th June 2017

Punts reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

Just how important is sex anyway? The various ramifications of gettin' on it bubble away throughout Sarah Page's Punts, plunging into a rather sticky mire of consent, class, morality and gender. 

At the core of the show is Jack (Christopher Adams) a 25-year-old with a learning disability. A brief period of oxygen deprivation in utero has left him painfully shy, awkward and nervous, a man treated with sympathy and wholly reliant on his parents Antonia (Clare Lawrence-Moody) and Alastair (Graham O'Mara). He's grown up watching his neurotypical younger brothers ride the rollercoaster of adolescent fumblings and subsequent heartbreak, yet seems resigned to being a mere spectator in intimacy.

Recognising this, his parents decide the best course of action is to book him a couple of hours with a sex worker, hoping that popping his cherry will loosen Jack up a bit and give him the confidence he needs to approach women. After extensive online research they pick Kitty (Florence Roberts), a confident, intelligent and extremely sexy woman who particularly empathises with disabled clients.

The appointment ends up having serious repercussions for all the characters, rippling outwards through their lives in unpredictable (but dramatically fertile) ways. Perhaps most interesting is when the characters are arguing over whether a man with a learning disability can consent to sex. In Punts this hinges on what Jack believes sex to be: the sweaty pumping in pornography and the laddish banter down at the rugby club, or a way to emotionally connect with another human being.

On top of that, his vision of sex is clouded by his parents' behaviour towards him. They're theoretically sex positive in a painfully British middle-class sort of way, dutifully providing their son with 'female-friendly' porn to watch yet balking at the idea of actually defining things like anal sex and cunnilingus. Beyond Jacks's personal experience, there's the uneasy sense that his parents are desperate for Jack to be as normal as possible, chiselling away at him according to their concept of masculinity.

We also examine femininity through Kitty (Julia in her off hours), who is happy, relaxed and sex positive, explaining "being a sex worker empowers me". She's pressed on this, asked "How about when some fat stranger is ejaculating on your face? You feel empowered then? ... How about when you're rimming some sweaty old man?" She responds: "ESPECIALLY then." For Julia, the work allows her independence and freedom, something Page slyly contrasts with the bondage of housewifery.

Sarah Page clearly isn't afraid of tackling some deeply slippery topics, piling into them with wit and energy. There's a core of intelligence and thoughtfulness running right through the play, presenting with a sexual battleground where class, education and privilege are weaponised. 

It's also a damn entertaining and funny piece of writing, speckled with well-timed lines that have the audience rolling. The interpersonal drama is also compelling, largely down to a quartet of obviously committed performers. The standout among them is Christopher Adams: playing a man with mental disabilities is a tricky proposition and runs the risk of derailing into stereotypes. In Adams' hands, Jack isn't 'just' a disability, he's a character with a fully formed personality and recognisable tics. 

My only slight nitpick is the staging. Amelia Jane Hankin's set is undeniably stylish - a glowing minimalist skeleton that throbs to the beat of the interstitial dance music. Yet the club aesthetic feels at odds with the naturalistic domesticity of the writing. I'd have liked to have seen a set that contributed to the characterisation. What are the posters in Jack's bedroom? What chintzy bourgeois knick-knacks dot the family kitchen? How does Kitty's sexualised presence contrast with the home she's visiting?

But this is a pretty small fly in a tub of very nice ointment. I generally hold Theatre503 to a higher standard than most fringe theatres - they've got ambition, they've got style and they've got enviable taste in picking plays to stage (they also have new seats, which is a godsend for the arse). Punts fit right in with what the place is about: an incisive, confidently written and bold piece of drama.

Punts is at Theatre503 Wednesday 31st May – Saturday 24th June, 7.45pm (Wed. & Sat. Matinee, 3pm). Tickets here.

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