Unsurprisingly perhaps, British theatre has tended to be a tad prudish when it comes to presenting subject matter of a sexual nature. It’s something as a nation we’re inherently uncomfortable with discussing, and although the last decade has seen us become more open and at ease, the issue of sex work still remains widely taboo. See Me Now, however, shatters this taboo, going between the sheets to shine light on London’s booming sex industry and the real lives that drive it. Delivered by an eleven-strong company consisting of former and current sex workers, it’s their personal stories and experiences we hear throughout the performance.
It’s clear from the off that most of the company lack experience of performing in theatre; often stumbling over lines or exclaiming a ‘shit!’ when they fall over in the dark between scenes. This, though, is what humanises them. Their inexperience endears them to us and ultimately elicits huge empathy for their stories. And boy are there some stories to be heard here. You have B, who appears in full period costume of the various historical prostitutes she embodies whilst hosting private parties for an exclusive clientele. Or Governess Elizabeth, the professional dominatrix, who gives a graphic display of her tools of choice including a set of urethra needles – it’s an often insightful and humorous glimpse into a world many of us have never entered into. Juxtaposed with these more light-hearted moments, there came some truly tragic recollections from other members of the company. Abuse, addiction and financial worry were the motifs that followed all these people throughout their lives, but structurally, having these heart-breaking moments come after a funny anecdote about dildos felt somewhat jarring, and limited the impact of the more poignant stories.
“We’re told to follow our passion, but what if that passion is sex?”
The amount of content is staggering, hearing eleven people’s experiences of the industry can be somewhat overwhelming, and at times I wish I could have heard more from all the company; it felt like each of them could have been the subject of their piece. But what we do hear is honest and revealing, delivered in frank tones from people who want to change the perception the public have of their industry. ‘Maybe it’s time to think’ is the message scrawled on the back wall, and we certainly do. Forced to confront the hypocrisy that whilst CEOs and bankers are widely drug users, it is sex workers who are tarred with the druggie label whilst those in higher positions are not demonised. It’s clear a regulated sex industry is the desired outcome, and it’s hard to disagree with the arguments made: enforced safe sex practices and more protection for workers in the industry. We’re told to follow our passion, but what if that passion is sex?
These real life tales and opinions are engaging and eye-opening, and stand powerfully on their own as a set of experiences. This is where See Me Now slightly falters, as it feels the need to garnish this emotion with unnecessary theatricality that feels at odds with the performer’s experiences as actors. The addition of still images and movement pieces feels tacked on, and the company often looked uncomfortable performing these parts. See Me Now works best when the company are simply talking to the audience, telling us their story as if we were sat across from them in a pub, playing off audience reaction. It feels incredibly close at these points and is some of the most honest discussion I’ve seen on stage. Perhaps more trust should have been put in the company’s ability to tell us their own stories, and less focus placed on unnecessary theatricality.
Image: Young Vic, Look Left Look Right and HighTide