The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs Spring 2018
Anthony Neilson has written and directs a modest little comedy with a bit of a serious edge, which is neither serious nor edgy enough to interfere with the fun.
A married couple played by Jonjo O'Neill and Sophie Russell announce that they have not had sex in over a year, and they are determined to break the drought even if they have to do it right here on the floor in front of us.
To jump ahead of ourselves, we will eventually discover that the problem is the man's, and that his impotence comes from being so confused by the rapid changes in what is acceptable in male sexual behaviour that he is afraid to make any advance at all out of fear that it may have been deemed rape without his getting the memo.
That is actually a legitimate subject for dramatic, even comic treatment. While no one can deny that the broad social changes at least partially freeing women from unwanted sexual mistreatment are a good thing, it is true that those changes sometimes leave men of good will unsure what is permissible and what is not.
But The Prudes is not the play that will explore that subject in any depth, mainly because playwright Neilson isn't really all that interested in it. He's having as much fun toying with the dramatic form itself or just being witty as in addressing his ostensible subject.
With lighting designer Chahine Yavroyan, director Neilson establishes a convention in which a particular lighting change allows one of the characters to step forward and address the audience without the other hearing what is said.
Having established and exploited the pattern to comic effect, he then has the man not wait for the lighting change and confess something only to have the woman break the frame to point out that she can hear him and remind him of the rules.
Neilson also sprinkles the play with Stoppardian wit and word play, gags that justify themselves not by relevance but just by being clever. After getting tangled up in a couple of extended metaphors, the man declares 'No more metaphors. Let's put our cards on the table,' and later unsatisfying masturbation will be described as 'like farting but without the sense of achievement.'
The two actors have fun with the comic opportunities – there are several moments when the slightest pause before a hurried agreement with the other speaks volumes – and generally gloss over the more serious implications, further evidence that those are not where the author-director's heart lies.
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