Writing a play about the sex industry is fraught with dilemmas. Do you include gratuitous nudity? Do you tell it like it is or dress it up like a stage version of Pretty Women?
And, at a time when traffickers are exploiting the vulnerability of desperate East European women, do you concentrate on the street walkers, those working the brothels or the high class whores?
Actress, and now playwright, Nadia Cavelle, has trod the middle ground with her debut work, Bruises, which opened last night at London’s Tabard Theatre.
The wordy, European-style piece, drected Jean-Claude Fall, is heavy on meaning and intensity and light on animation and action but engrossing nonetheless.
There are interesting observations about sex work and its participants but, inevitably, presents us with clichéd characterisation.
Anna Reid’s original and clever set piques your curiosity when entering the Chiswick venue. The back of the stage is lined with fridges which are opened throughout the performance to reveal props from the various scene locations (there’s even a miniature stag’s head mounted on the back of one ice box).
And, I suppose, if we’re going to get deep, they also represent the cold containment of the characters’ lives.
It opens with Damian, a gigolo and “PA” (he test drives potential hookers for his boss) expounding on why he does what he does. “I became a warmth-digger but you can call me a prostitute,” he admits unashamedly.
It’s a pity we don’t see more of Damien (James Barnes) figuratively speaking, because he’s the closest the play comes to an original idea, a man who seemingly hires himself out because he wants to.
He works for Mona (Lily Knight), a well-bred, high-powered, executive who saw the potential to run a stable of top totty for the global millionaires market. She educates her fillies and sends them off to Monaco or Paris to escort the rich and powerful.
Bruises, though, is all about two women, best friends Banana and Jacqueline. Banana, a former gymnast who is illiterate and lost, is so called because her mother enjoyed the fruit after sex.
“I have some Japanese in me because my mother had some Japanese in her,” she explains to banker Justin Case (yeah, a bit of a lame joke I know).
Justin had picked her up and spent the night with her. If opposites attract then this is a relationship made in heaven. He’s a control freak, living a minimalist life to avoid commitment, a frustrated chef and nut allergic. She is a chaotic mess.
But the mentally unstable Jackie is worse. After more than a decade on the game she sees her only chance of a viable future in the hands of Mona. Moulded, educated and schooled by a French professor, who does a bit of extra curricular work on the side, she is sent out to make a fortune for her madam.
There is inevitability with Bruises. We learn a lot about Banana and Jackie but nothing we didn’t already know from life. Justin is interesting though, in a way as much a victim of his upbringing as the girls.
Cavelle doesn’t make “the oldest game” glamorous but it does have its moments.
I appear to have missed the moment when prostitutes reinvented themselves as sex workers. The new name seems to give the profession an air of legitimacy and acceptance which, perhaps was the writer’s intention.
There’s no mention of AIDs or other sexual diseases, no mention of drug and drink addiction (although Jackie, named Carla when on the clock, does knock back the vino), or the violence associated with the sex trade. It’s an extremely sanitised depiction of a very sordid business.
But perhaps its very title is enough – women (and some men) who are bruised and battered, emotionally and physically, by a life that I suspect the majority of the audience and Cavelle herself, know little about.
It’s a well-acted ensemble piece that holds your attention. Kirsty Rider’s Banana and Eva-Jane Willis, as Jacqueline, are convincing as a pair of damaged modern women while Michael Edwards injects some humanity into banker Justin (and that’s not easy to do.)
Would he fall for someone like Banana? I doubt it. But this urban fairy tale works its magic in more ways than one.
Bruises runs at the Tabard Theatre until August 29.
Engrossing and well-acted. The lives of sex workers in the modern day are explored in Nadia Cavelle’s debut play, Bruises, at London’s Tabard Theatre.