Virgins comes to the Edinburgh Fringe thanks to the Arts Council’s Escalator East to Edinburgh initiative. Often promoting more experimental, modern work, the scheme gives the world a great opportunity to see something fresh, innovative and original, away from the stand-up comedy and the West End-bound big hitters that often dominate the Edinburgh fringe.
John Retallack’s production is a family drama, dealing with the issues surrounding growing-up and sexual experimentation. It’s a very modern piece that, like Emily’s Kitchen at the Gilded Balloon (at the festival as part of the same scheme) explores what it means to be young in the 21st century. Both works incorporate elements of physical theatre and dance to help tell their stories, although to quite different ends.
Virgins is set in a modern, family home, and concerns two parents who have lost their passion for one another, and two teenage children whose passions and desire to experiment are growing exponentially. The story hinges around 17-year old Jack (brilliantly played by Stefan Butler) who, while at a a party, has taken drugs and had unprotected sex with, it seems, two different girls. His father, Nick (Peter Machen), gets wind of this and berates him for his irresponsibility, causing them to fall out. Meanwhile, Jack’s sister Zoe, in a terrific turn by Emily Woodward, has to deal with a crush on an unseen boy and a mother (Tilly Fortune) who talks down to her.
The piece explores what can and can’t be said within a family context and the things families don’t want to (or possibly shouldn’t) talk about. It deals with growing up and the mistakes people make, as well as the difficulties “grown-ups” have with sexual relationships when love has long lost its fire. However, while it is expertly written and conceived, the message of Virgins left me cold, appearing to have much in common with the American True Love Waits campaign in its suggestion that Zoe’s abstinent attitude to sex is physically and morally healthier than her brother’s experimentation, even giving her moral superiority over her parents. Sexuality – it really screws you up, so to speak.
Virgins is clearly aimed at a young audience, and I suppose it could be used as a starting point in a discussion of the issues involved without necessarily being the final word. It makes imaginative use of theatre as a medium, giving the subject a different, more three-dimensional handling than would have been the case with film or television. However, it suffers in the slightness of its subject matter. That’s not to say it wasn’t very well written, it just never elevated itself above a standard teenage drama – a maudlin foray into the troubled lives of the middle class where sexuality was very much a “problem”, a cause of nothing but concern and anxiety.