The Girlfriend Experience @ Royal Court, London

cast list
Debbie Chazen
Beatie Edney
Lu Corfield
Esther Coles
Alex Lowe

directed by
Joe Hill Gibbins
The ‘girlfriend experience’ is a term used in the sex trade to describe a more intimate and sympathetic service than the usual wham-bam business, one that allows for kissing and conversation. And it is the service specialised in by the brothel on which Alecky Blythe has based her latest verbatim production.

As with her previous work for Recorded Delivery, Blythe’s production makes use of real conversations – interviews with real prostitutes that have been edited down and condensed into a theatrically workable form. These conversations are then performed by actors who wear headphones so they can listen to the dialogue and repeat it word for word, pause for pause, mimicking accent and intonation.

What the production acutely captures is the tedium of life in the sex trade or, at least, in a certain corner of it. This is about as far away from the glossy erotica of Belle du Jour as it’s possible to get. The women sit around a shabby, suburban looking sitting room, munching sandwiches and watching daytime TV, waiting for the next punter to ring on the door. Were it not for the fact that they are all wearing skimpy (and often spectacularly unflattering) black nylon lingerie, it could be anywhere. It is only when the phone rings and brothel manager Tessa reels off the details of the various ‘girls’ and their tariffs that you are sharply reminded of exactly what their business is.

Tessa (winningly played by Debbie Chazen) spends the time she has free between punters hurrying around the flat, hurrying as fast as one can in platform PVC boots, answering the phone, grappling with flat-pack furniture and sorting laundry. Because the banality of the business is so beautifully illustrated, the yelps of sexual release emanating from the other room (all sex acts occur off-stage) are even more jarring.

Tessa’s ‘girls’ include Suzie (Beatie Edney), a middle aged woman with a superficially bubbly persona who needs the money to help her dying father; Amber (Esther Coles), also middle aged – and married of whom we learn relatively little; and Poppy (Lu Corfield), a lumpy thing with self inflicted cigarette burns on her arms, who will do water sports if requested (though not ‘hard sports’, the least said of which, the better). Tessa also has a teenage daughter, who we do not hear from in the play, and is keen to point out that being a prostitute and being a good mother are not mutually exclusive.

The punters, on the other hand, (all played by Alex Lowe) are an assortment of the pathetic, the average and the creepy: there’s a Mr Viagra, a regular, who takes an age to come and requires special attention, an unpleasant and intimidating bloke who hassles Poppy, and an old chap with a walking stick who shuffles in for a spank and a wank.

Blythe’s production highlights the way that the sex trade is changing. With a glut of foreign girls who will do pretty much anything, the older sex workers need to alter the way they do things in order to compete, and these more tender services are a result of that shift. Perhaps inevitably real relationships are a problem for these women, they too long for the intimacy for which their clients visit them, and one of them makes the mistake of starting to date a punter, a no-no in the trade.

Do the Recorded Delivery techniques make Blythe’s production any more ‘real’ than other verbatim theatre? Not really. The idea of documentary theatre is a difficult one, there is always an inevitable filter of artifice. Still, The Girlfriend Experience certainly feels more substantial than her past project, Cruising, which used the same techniques to depict, rather condescendingly I thought, the sex lives of those past the first flush of youth. This is an altogether grimmer thing, but sad and human and revealing with it.

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