Is This About Sex?
by Christian O’Reilly
Edinburgh: Drill Hall, 2nd to 26th August. Presented as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Galway, Town Hall Theatre 3rd to 8th September. Cork: Opera House 10th to 22nd September. Dublin: Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire 1st to 13th October. Presented as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival.
Daniel (Darragh Kelly) is a man with a problem. He’s a sensitive, loving husband: kind, caring, a great cook, a terrific lover, attentive to his wife’s every need, but he’s also becoming increasingly convinced that deep down, he’s actually a woman. As our play begins, he is in the lingére section of a department store asking Cathy (Hilary O’Shaughnessy) to help him buy a bra. She’s a little fazed, but not much, and helps him out. She has issues of her own with sex, namely that her boyfriend Paul (Rory Nolan) isn’t very interested in it. When he does make an effort, it seems laboured. Of course, part of the problem is that he’s having an affair, or trying to have one, with Kay (Ali White), a co-worker who seems more interested in eating her sandwiches than actually having sex during their lunchtime hotel interludes and, by an enormous co-incidence, she happens to be Daniel’s wife. Kay also has a suspiciously butch friend, Angela (Ruth Hegarty) who keeps advising her to leave her husband, and it doesn’t take the final scene plot twist to tell us why. Anyway, gradually the friendship between Cathy and Daniel develops until suddenly, he wearing a slip, she a skirt, they fall into bed together. Suddenly everyone’s sleeping with everyone, but why? Is it just about sex?
Yes, yes: it’s one of those bed hopping 1970s sex farces with a dash of transvestitism (and potential transsexuality) thrown in. Yes, yes: these plays are long past their sell by date internationally and hardly shocking anymore. Yes, yes: I’ve seen Jane Anderson’s Looking for Normal, a sensitive and moving play about transexuality that also has a blackly comic side, but which played it straight and left the door open to both a film version, Normal, and later Transamerica. Does all of this mean Christian O’Reilly’s sophomore effort has no right to exist? No. Is it funny at all? Yes, actually, and the humour in it grows more out of four well drawn and well acted characters working through familiar situations in sometimes unexpected ways than out of embarrassed tittering about cunnilingus and masturbation. It is also ultimately not about transexualism, but more about loneliness and disconnection, about finding what you really need in your relationships, sexually and otherwise.
What I liked about the play is how good the dialogue was. O’Reilly has a terrific ear for the rhythm and timbre of the Irish vernacular without tipping things over into parochial self-parody. There’s an honesty in how the characters speak to one another that has familiar verbal contours, and this goes a long way to overcoming the over-familiarity of the genre. This also has the effect of naturalising the explicit sexual dialogue in ways that also serve to get past any sense that simply talking about going down on someone should elicit a laugh, because it becomes situational and character-based rather than just shock.
The cast are also superb. O’Shaughnessy is utterly convincing in a way that makes it feel like an actual shopgirl with a boorish boyfriend has been dropped on stage. The others are good too, and the ensemble works well when brought into conflict in various combinations. There’s an absolutely priceless scene between Kelly and Nolan, the former also an IT specialist hired by the latter to examine his computer under false pretenses. Paul (Nolan) really wants to find out about Daniel’s (Kelly) techniques for oral sex, which allegedly can bring his wife to a satisfying orgasm in two minutes. Paul’s record is somewhere around the 20 minute mark, and the realisation that he’s not at the top of the league is torturing him. The conversation between them is wonderfully farcical, with Paul waffling away about cavemen in a clumsy attempt to get specific information and Daniel extolling the virtues of a woman’s body and soul without ever answering Paul’s question. It’s a delicious ballet of verbal fencing, and very well handled by the actors.
Rough Magic director Lynne Parker helms the show, which is delivered with great precision. Though the entire enterprise could in so many ways have so easily degenerated into amateur night indulgence, Parker keeps it moving quickly and steadily. O’Reilly’s good writing, Parker’s firm control and the cast hitting just the right tone all work to make the play function as a drama while keeping us laughing. Ultimately, in a very old fashioned but very satisfying way, we believe in these people and have sympathy for them, and this makes it a very enjoyable evening out. Groundbreaking? No. Entertaining? Yes.