Starkly comic depictions of the awkwardness of intimate human behavior are usually the result of a distinctly merciless eye. But the hallmark of dramatist Nick Payne, only in his mid-20s, is his compassion. “Wanderlust” doesn’t quite deliver on its initial promise, but the peals of laughter greeting its scenes of acute sexual tension are testament to its delicious detailing of embarrassment.

Things are no longer good in the bedroom department of middle-aged married couple Joy (Pippa Heywood) and Alan (Stuart McQuarrie). She’s no longer interested in sex, he craves it. And just as they begin openly confronting their dilemma, opportunity knocks on both their doors.

Almost forgotten old flame Stephen (Charles Edwards) turns up at Joy’s surgery with enough of an inconvenient medical problem to make him stutter: “And it’s sore. And there’s a kind of. I think on Wikipedia it described it as ‘cream cheese’ like.’ ”

Having sorted out his thrush, Joy finds herself going for a drink with him. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, Alan is being chatted up by much younger teacher Clare (Sian Brooke). And their gangly and nerdy 15-year-old son Tim (James Musgrave) is calmly setting about getting extremely practical sexual tips from his slightly more experienced friend Michelle (Isabella Laughland).

The more involved everyone becomes in their secretive assignations, the more opportunities there are for Payne to dramatize the differences among sex, intimacy and love.

Simon Godwin’s beautifully acted production is alive to all the absurdities of the situations as everyone tries to communicate, their failure to do so providing all the drama and the laughs.

The two teenagers are gauche as Tim asks Michelle whether he can “practice” on her before asking out the older girl whom he’s attracted to. Their steady lessons in sexual technique are necessarily explanatory — “I would say it’s probably best if you use your two middle fingers,” advises Michelle, coolly — but their physical experiment is beautifully undercut by the unspoken feelings that arise between them.

At the other extreme, Joy makes an ill-timed decision that she and Alan should reignite their sex life by acting out fantasies for each other, on a strictly timetabled basis, of course. But to the audience’s delight, and the characters’ frustration, the scene where Heywood appears dressed as a fetishised school girl induces not her husband’s mounting excitement but his horror.

In fact, he (in line with almost everyone else) is realizing his fantasies elsewhere, with decidedly mixed personal results. The one thing that unites these disparate experiments in lust is their lack of emotional content. Being explicit, argues Payne convincingly, is not necessarily expressive.

For all the balancing of the neatly choreographed couples and couplings, however, the evening proceeds rather than builds. Despite the warmth of the writing, the characters feel a little like linked limbs in search of the connective tissue of a fully realized play.

Payne’s delineation of sexual pain and pleasure has nothing to do with S&M and everything to do with emotional connection. And although the play is stronger on juxtapositions than growth, its unfashionable content makes it surprisingly enjoyable.


Royal Court Upstairs, London; 88 seats; £15 top

  • Production: A Royal Court Theater presentation of a play in one act by Nick Payne. Directed by Simon Godwin.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Robert Innes-Hopkins; lighting, James Farncombe, sound, Alexander Caplen; music, Tom Mills; production stage manager, Anna-Maria Casson. Opened, reviewed Sept. 17, 2010. Running time: 90 MIN.
  • Cast: Joy Richards - Pippa Heywood Stephen Moore - Charles Edwards Alan Richards - Stuart McQuarrie Clare Walsh - Sian Brooke Tim Richards - James Musgrave Michelle McCullen - Isabella Laughland Neil Waters, Waiter - Howard Ward