Monday, 30 January 2017

Theatre review: Experience

Dave Florez' short play Experience is about a subject I may or may not have heard of before - at one point in the play a Daily Mail story objects to it and the headline sounds familiar, but then the Daily Mail objects to pretty much everything except fascism so I could just be confusing it with something else. Sexual Surrogacy is a therapy technique originally designed to help individuals and couples with sexual problems, but it's been suggested as a way of helping rehabilitate criminals as well. Helen (Kirsty Besterman) is a therapist trying to get Dan (Christian Cooke,) who's been in a criminal psychiatric facility since he was 16, to talk to her, but he's institutionalised and unable to deal with other humans. She enlists her top sexual surrogate Amy (Charlotte Lucas) to start with something as basic as a handshake and move on to sex until he's ready to face the outside world.

Dan is up for parole soon, and Helen is hoping for results by then so that this can become a regular contract, so Amy and her therapeutic vagina are on a deadline.

But she's hampered by the rules that mean she has to go in blind, knowing nothing about Dan's past or his crime. We hear a lot about how patients can often get too attached to their sexual surrogate but as Amy pushes the boundaries to get to know as much about Dan as she can it's obvious that inappropriate attachment can go both ways. Tom Attenborough's production is straightforward and well-paced on a grubby industrial design by Polly Sullivan full of hidden doors and concealed sets.

This is a simple story that doesn't hold too many surprises until the end - and then when we do get a twist in why Dan committed his crime it's a bit too late and not really explored enough. But in something that Hampstead Downstairs seems to be quite good at lately, Florez has wisely picked a fresh and unusual subject that does a lot of the legwork in keeping the audience interested. Casting Cooke in a play has to be risky, since you can't get someone else to redub his performance later, but while he dips too much into the ticks and twitches from The Big Book of Mental Illness Acting he does seem to have had a few acting lessons since he first turned up on TV.

Lucas is nicely enigmatic although Besterman doesn't really get enough to do to make her character feel like a rounded person. Experience intrigued me but I can't say I was entirely sucked into its world.

Experience by Dave Florez is booking until the 18th of February at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Robert Day.

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