Having created verbatim plays about an armed siege in London and about retirees looking for love, Alecky Blythe now tackles the bracing world of downmarket sex workers in “The Girlfriend Experience.” The play successfully opens up awareness of the ordinariness of these women’s aspirations and desires, particularly thanks to the female cast’s amazing physical and emotional engagement. It’s not clear, however, what is gained by having the actors listen to headsets and repeat back the recorded voices of their subjects as they perform; while intended to bring a sense of truthfulness, the gesture feels untrusting of auds, performers and material.
The text is an edited transcript of activity inside a Bournemouth brothel, where Blythe spent numerous weeks observing and interacting with employees. All four prostitutes are full-figured (or, in the parlance of their trade, “curvy”) and middle-aged; several offer “the full Girlfriend Experience” — that is, kissing and cuddling in addition to the usual sex acts. (The play bears no relation except, broadly, in subject matter to the mooted Steven Soderbergh film of the same title.)
We observe the women bantering, dressing for work (in copious satin, lace and vinyl), fielding phone calls and only occasionally interacting with customers (all played by the same man, the appropriately versatile Alex Lowe).
Tessa (Debbie Chazen), the madam, is trying to keep the business going while caring for a teenage daughter; Suzie (Beatie Edney), in her pretty flowered blouse, comes across like someone’s kindly aunt, until she pulls a vibrator and lube from her wheely suitcase. Poppy (Lu Corfield) is the youngest of the team and into the kinkiest activity, while married Amber (Esther Coles) is the most cynical.
The reality of sex work is hardly unknown in contemporary culture, but what’s new here is the access to the women’s emotional and psychological lives. The ease and openness with which the actors inhabit the stage, often while very scantily clad, makes the production a consistent pleasure to watch despite the sometimes challenging material.
Blythe and director Joe Hill-Gibbons cleverly remind auds of the playwright’s presence in the real-life action by including moments where the prostitutes address her — meaning that they turn and talk directly to the audience. Lest we get swept up in what feels like a well-written yarn, these moments jostle us into awareness that we are watching something based on real life.
Or is it? One of the consistent problems with verbatim theater is its claim to represent reality, when it of course involves multiple levels of mediation, from writers’ editing of transcripts to the very presence of actors, design and audiences.
Blythe has necessarily been selective in what she’s chosen to include in the final script, picking material to support her overall point: that these are women-next-door with familiar desires and goals, just trying to get by. The inclusion of graphic descriptions of sex acts and clients’ dysfunctions seems at times gratuitous, as if Blythe were trying to shock her bourgeois audience.
Most of time, however, the material is well-judged; while humor is gleaned from the juxtaposition of banality and verbal explicitness, the laughter is often productively ambiguous. Auds catch themselves laughing nervously and are made to wonder why open talk of sexuality and the reality of prostitution are still such societal taboos.
Given the strength of material and performers, having the actors wear headsets feels like a gimmick, particularly since their delivery is so polished it’s hard to believe they haven’t memorized the lines. While Blythe and her collaborators do have an ethical responsibility to represent their subjects accurately, this overbearing insistence on veracity feels like the show is trying to deny what it might instead celebrate: its inherent theatricality.