It’s an obvious point but it needs to be made. While sex is frequently up for discussion in Alecky Blythe’s entertaining new play at the Bush Theatre, it’s not of the variety that the rather misleading title might imply.
Cruising is actually an amusing experiment in verbatim theatre. Working from taped interviews, the actors wear earphones throughout the performance, replicating their subjects’ every stutter, hesitation and vocal tic.
Blythe’s company Recorded Delivery has produced work in this manner before, with 2004’s Come Out Eli and 2005’s All The Right People Come Here. In this new piece she revisits a character from another verbatim production, Strawberry Fields and makes this woman the central focus of the drama. And Maureen is quite a character: a widow in her early seventies, she is on the lookout for a new partner and quite frank in the way she discusses her still-active sex life.
Maureen, her friend Margaret and Margaret’s eighty-year-old fianc Geoff, are all played by actors far younger than their characters but, for the most part, the vocal performances mask this physical disparity. Comedian Miranda Hart is particularly superb as the no-nonsense Maureen, relaying her character’s pronouncements on men and sex without ever making the woman into a laughing stock, even in her most forthright moments. It’s a sympathetic and balanced performance.
Ian Dunn and Claire Lichie also make an endearing team as Geoff and Margaret, him solid and sensible, her girlish and flighty and unable to complete a sentence without bursting into nervous laughter.
Aside from these three, Cruising presents a number of elderly chaps well versed in dating agency argot and the benefits of Viagra. In one particularly filthy vignette, a man recounts with relish his bedroom experiments with “a rather hefty dildo and a few appropriate creams.” The audience were screaming with laughter on the night I attended, me amongst them. But on reflection I do wonder if what triggered such a strong reaction was simply the idea of, well, old people at it – after all dialogue like that fuelled six series of Sex And The City and, thanks to Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Tipping The Velvet, dildos have even made it into BBC prime time.
This highlights the difficulties inherent in Blythe’s dramatic approach. The line between laughing at and laughing with these characters is a fine one, which the play occasionally crosses. Come Out Eli and All The Right People Come Here were bigger in scope, documenting public responses to particular events, but in using these same techniques in this more intimate fashion, Blythe crosses into more difficult dramatic territory.
Despite the questions it raises, her affection for these characters comes through quite clearly; Cruising is an entertaining and well-performed piece of theatre, frequently hilarious but not without unguarded moments of poignancy. It feels a little overstretched at 75 minutes but contains much to make you laugh. Some people may be left feeling a little uneasy over the nature of the comedy but you get the sense the unflappable Maureen would probably think them rather silly. After all, she’s got better things on her mind.