Jules Leyser's one-women (sic) show All Words For Sex won her plaudits and awards last summer in Edinburgh, and now arrives in London at the Soho Theatre. It's one of those solo shows which, although terribly impressive, are diminished because it's so obvious that they're intended primarily to impress rather than to engage in any deeper way. Leyser writes excellently and performs almost as well, but her material plays second fiddle to the need to showcase her skills.
This is probably cruel and a matter of my perception quite as much as Leyser's presentation (although it doesn't help that the show is apparently produced by her agents). Leyser's script is intelligent, showing snapshots of four successive women in session with an unseen psychiatrist. Imogen is a chippy media shaker who casually beds her employees then gets rid of them to forestall possible rejection; Marion a middle-aged wife who immerses herself in good works to offset the hollowness at the core of her marriage due to her disgust at even the mention of matters sexual; Paula a brash 21-year-old ambivalent about her former abuse by her father and frank in her use of sex as a means of exchange; Beth a rape victim whose spirit has been frozen by her ordeal. Leyser's costume changes are covered by Tom Holland's film sequences showing each woman's journey to the Harley Street consulting room, which efficiently and economically sketch out the character before we hear her say a word.
Leyser writes fluently and for the most part subtly (I particularly liked the various discreet hints of "transference" from the first three women). She is also an able performer, but Philip Goodhew's direction fails to curb a tendency in her to self-conscious ironisation, a range of expressions which amount to making "air quotes" with her eyes, so to speak. It is natural that arrogant Imogen should over-emphasise phrases and gestures – should, in effect, perform – but much less so in the case of prim Marion, and even at times in the deadened Beth. It is also mildly disheartening that Paula is made a Scouser (the subtext being "look, I can do regional"); and however powerful and sensitive the climactic account by Beth of her violation may be, it suffers from its utter predictability as being precisely the conclusion the play requires. Leyser achieves a great deal in the course of these 80 minutes, but the purpose of the play is subordinate to her abilities rather than vice versa.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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