The Sex Party at the Menier Chocolate Factory review: this scattershot comedy is a bad joke

 (Alastair Muir)
(Alastair Muir)

A trans woman walks into a middle-aged Islington orgy where couples are bickering instead of shagging, and really gives them something to argue about. Terry Johnson’s play sounds like a bad joke and it is: a scattershot comedy about permission and identity in a post MeToo, gender-fluid world, that sets out to offend everybody and pretty much succeeds.

It’s also a mess, the thin and inconsistent characters barking random responses to whichever talking point happens to drift by. There’s no real plot, just a series of meandering confrontations that Johnson himself directs without any sense of urgency: at one point, everyone witters about dogs for five minutes. Though sporadically funny, it’s a waste of a fine cast, half of whom – guess which! – spend the whole evening wearing diminishing amounts of sexy attire.

At its heart are host Alex (Jason Merrells) and guest Gilly (Lisa Dwan), two old flames who never quite combusted. She entered into a carnally active but rancorous marriage and family life. He hosts sex parties with his too-young, submissive - “because she chooses to be” - lover Hetty (Molly Osboren), but sits in the kitchen issuing snippy judgments rather than getting stuck in.

Will Alex and Gilly finally get together, even with their partners, Alex’s drug-addled colleague Tim and his bossy girlfriend Camilla, and several strangers recruited online all watching?

Molly Osborne, left, and Lisa Dwan in The Sex Party (Alastair Muir)
Molly Osborne, left, and Lisa Dwan in The Sex Party (Alastair Muir)

Well, no. Because Johnson is more interested in where the acceptable boundaries of humour, selfishness and sexual desire lie than in his characters’ narrative arcs. He’s giving current orthodoxies a daringly unfocused kicking here. Is an all-white, largely heterosexual orgy - with a bit of token lesbianism thrown in – essentially racist and homophobic? Can you question someone’s gender self-identification, or the Holocaust? How exactly does the concept of consent work in an orgy?

The action, when the characters finally get down to it, happens offstage, as in a Greek tragedy: all we experience is talk. There are some witty lines, some incisive points, but the dialogue is mostly crass exposition or hollow argument. And when it comes to examining the male gaze, Johnson likes to have his scantily-clad female cake and eat it too.

Iranian-American actor Pooya Mohseni as the contentiously transgender Lucy, and Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton as a disgustingly ponytailed, rich Republican who likes debauchery on his own terms, are among those wasted. Amanda Ryan is spirited and deliberately unsubtle as a chaotically blunt Russian trophy wife who voices the most offensive opinions.

But the most convincing performance comes from Osborne, a true rising star, in the impossible fantasy role of Hetty. She is simultaneously free and constrained, libidinous and sensible, and sustains the play’s dreadful payoff which combines sex, death and rebirth. Osborne was previously at the Menier in Fiddler on the Roof and Indecent, and she’s been remarkable each time.

Johnson certainly has balls, wading into the gender-identity debate via a sex comedy, two things most theatres wouldn’t attempt. Shame the result is so poor, though.

Menier Chocolate Factory, to January;