Monday, October 5, 2015

'5 Guys Chillin' at the King's Head Theatre, 2nd October 2015

Every entry to 5 Guys Chillin' comes with a free johnny and pouch of lube. This is a suitable harbinger to a show that communicates a dizzyingly varied amount of ways for guys to stick their dicks in one another. 

Aside from the obvious (anal, oral etc), we get detailed descriptions of bondage slings, watersports, fisting and even a multi-man merry-go-round spit roasting device. This is all couched in a woozy narcotic soup; nostrils tingling with the buzz of mandy, coke-addled brains twitching to life and teeth grinding to dust under the loving eyes of tina.

The titular '5 Guys' (all un-named) are played by Elliot Hadley, Tom Holloway, Damien Hughes, Michael Matrovski and Shri Patel. We meet them as they prepare to embark on a 'chill'; a lengthy fucking and drugs session in one of their flats. Shorn of a clear narrative, the 80 minute play is composed of; lengthy discussions in orgy etiquette (don't spend all night on your phone, don't gobble all the host's Viagra, don't invite friends over without asking); the ethics of STD infections and HIV transmission in group sex; a paean to recreational drug use; and the most outrageous stories each of them has.

Taken as a straight play this avalanche of hedonism would quickly become tiring. But 5 Guys Chilling is verbatim theatre - i.e. the script is composed of extracts from interviews. This allows the play to sidestep accusations of sensationalism and claim verisimilitude in documenting a the chemsex gay subculture.

Even so, there comes a moment about half-way when the pervy fun of watching fit gay guys cavorting around in harnesses and zip-up jock-straps starts to wear a bit thin. It's like getting used to a hot bath, and you get a bit blase as you watch yet another round of spit n' thrust buggery. But mid-way through there's a subtle change of gear as the physical thrills of stimulants and sex begin to take their toll.

One of the most successful moments is a touching monologue from Shri Patel about what it's like to be a gay Pakistani. Drawing back to more emotionally sincere territory, he explains that as his parent's only son there are incredibly strong societal pressures on him to get married, have children and take care of his elderly parents. Combining a vigorously active sex life with a traditional Muslim marriage sounds next to impossible, making his guide through this deadly (sadly probably literally) minefield utterly fascinating.

All the characters get these moments of sober honesty. We hear about times when things got too heavy even for these bold sexual pioneers. Being trussed up in a sling in a bondage club and then gang-raped; threatened at knife-point in your own home by a meth-addled psycho; your attention span shrinking as drugs mushify your mind; even the straightforward loss of intimacy and excitement that comes from indulging in pleasure to the exclusion of all else.

By the time the curtain falls the five men have become burnt out zombies. One man's face is smeared with blood, his mucous membranes having finally collapsed under a crystallised onslaught. Two more are blank-faced zoned out on the sofa, spikes dangling from their veins. Another is pale-faced and hunched, rocking back and forth, next to the motionless body of someone recovering from a seizure.

It's a painfully accurate dramatisation of how drug-induced euphoria contrasts with the inevitable comedown, when you've finally exhausted your serotonin reserves and your muscles ache from overexertion. But 5 Guys Chilling isn't ending on a note of condemnation, but with the intelligent, truthful portrayal of the effects of excess. Perhaps most notably, it leaves the audience to judge whether the highs are worth the crushing lows.

I've got to admit, for the first twenty to thirty minutes I had some reservations. I suspected that whatever substance there was to the play was in service of providing several good-looking nearly naked young men for the primarily gay male audience to ogle. I also found it initially lacking in comparison to the King's Head's recent production of Fucking Men, which successfully wove sexual thrills into social commentary. 

Fortunately the gradual shift in tone towards introspection and consequences won me over. On a basic level it's refreshing to see theatre so at ease with sexuality and drug use, leaving prudery firmly at the stage door. But importantly, 5 Guys Chilling not only entertained but informed (teaching me some interesting things about non-detectable HIV transmission rates). 

It'd be all too easy to stage a paper-thin, cock-hardeningly-pornographic exploration of this subculture. But 5 Guys Chilling goes deeper asking what it really means to be a 21st century libertine. 


5 Guys Chilling is at the King's Head Theatre until 24 October. Tickets here.

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