Friday, May 10, 2019

Review: 'Fuck You Pay Me' at The Bunker Theatre, 9th May 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Fuck You Pay Me can quite easily be summarised with the placards held aloft at the end of the show: "NO SHAME" and "SEX WORK IS REAL WORK". The two (entirely correct) statements finish off an energetic and exhilarating night of theatre - a barbed and punky manifesto that makes the argument that sex workers of all stripes deserve respect, provides a guide for customers on how to behave around them, and a rebuttal to the argument that this is an inherently degrading job.

The main course is a lengthy monologue written and performed by Joana Nastari, but the stage is set by two guest performances. First up is Esmeralda, a stripper from San Diego who talks about her most embarrassing moment on stage before launching into a very touching explanation that stripping is the only thing she has found that can reliably alleviate her anxiety, depression and PTSD. She's a charismatic stage presence, making her proclamation that her work has made her into a strong woman a simple statement of fact. 

Then there's a neat performance set to Prince, which was fun.

After that we're into Fuck You Pay Me proper. This monologue spans the Saturday night of stripper Holly/Bea (Joana Nastari). The night begins with her arriving early at the club and preparing for her shift and concludes with the church bells ringing on Sunday morning. Sandwiched between this is a woozy cocktail of hedonism, drugs, booze, horrible men, cynicism, brief joy and paranoia. It's scored by a fantastic live mix by Kitt Proudfoot (who also plays Holly's phone).

Nastari's writing is impressively vivid from start to finish. She's got a fantastic gift for capturing the full sensory experience: be it the intensely gross 'shoe graveyard' in the changing rooms, the confectionary tang of Britney Spears' brand perfume or the sensation of a man's fat fingers creeping up your inner thigh. 

Holly's night proceeds in peaks and troughs, filled with descriptions of the clientele that come in through the doors. None of these men come off particularly well, with most of them apparently being posh city traders who spout patronising garbage like "you're too pretty to work in a place like this?" or "you're far too intelligent to work here". 

There's also a common thread of men who simply don't understand the transactive nature of their interactions with Holly. She will politely engage with whatever rubbish they're spouting in the hope of getting them to agree to a private dance (where she makes most of her money), but in the end, they casually say they're just happy to chat. Here she rolls her eyes and scoots off to find someone more generous with deeper pockets.

Much of Fuck You Pay Me is about revealing the reality behind this variety of sex work and the show proves as educational as it is entertaining. We sense the camaraderie between the women working there, each bringing their own personality and style to their stage personas. This supportive sisterhood alters the balance of power within the club. The male patrons feel powerful and in control, whereas in actuality they're stuck in a flesh and alcohol powered machine designed to empty their pockets.

If women find working in places like this empowering, then I'll take that at face value. I'm not going to pretend to be an authority on strip clubs and the people that work there, and even after this show (and reading the excellent zine-style programme) I still don't quite get it. 

My reaction to Nastari's monologue was to conclude that strip clubs (or at least the one in this monologue) are deeply, deeply depressing places where horrible men congregate to treat the women working there like shit. It looks like an unpleasant environment where men can pay to regress into 1950s-era sexism - or as the show views it a 'babysitting service for grown men'. And while I guess the idea of paying for someone to act interested in you isn't a million miles away from a customer service job, it's still a bit sad.

But hey, though these clubs are not for me they aren't going away anytime soon, so the show's call for the women working there to be treated with respect and without stigma is entirely correct. Throughout the show we hear how negative stereotypes affect these women: mainly that only the most desperate and lowly of women would consider this as a job, combined with a Puritan sensibility that this work makes you inherently 'unclean'.

As this night demonstrates, defeating that stigma is a long way off. But if fizzingly exciting, imaginative and deeply likeable shows like Fuck You Pay Me are anything to go by, the momentum is with them. 

Fuck You Pay Me is at the Bunker Theatre until May 19th. Tickets here.

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