It is a touch uncomfortable wandering through the living room of a Bournemouth brothel, but if you didn’t know any better, the clothes strewn everywhere – plain bras on the backs of flock sofas – could be in any slightly disorganised basement flat.
Designer Lizzie Clachan has created a homely environment in the Royal Court’s Upstairs theatre, where men come for a different type of sexual experience. While some hookers, as we are told, offer the Porn Star Experience, the middle-aged protagonists of Alecky Blythe’s new play specialise in the more caring Girlfriend Experience.
This tale of prostitution does not revolve around people trafficking or feeding drug habits, it depicts a lifestyle choice of women seemingly happy with their chosen careers. In between pleasuring punters they attempt to build flat pack furniture and enjoy a spot of Jeremy Kyle-watching.
Debbie Chazen’s bubbly Tessa is a single mother who keeps family life separate from work, though the father of her children is never mentioned so it is unclear whether work and family ever mixed. Beatie Edney’s Suzie is a single lady looking for Mr Right. The two work well as a central double-act around whom the piece is built.
But this is not an invented story in which prostitutes are lovely, cuddly ladies; The Girlfriend Experience is created from interviews and conversations held in an actual brothel with its ‘employees’. The actors, all supplied with headphones, repeat the conversations of their characters as they hear them, replicating the accent, intonations, and overlapping speech. What we get is not carefully constructed poetic prose, but real people speaking as real people do, grounding the story firmly in reality.
This is not to say that the art of shaping dialogue is not present. Blythe has edited and shaped the conversations to create a story, a docu-drama, about choices and decisions made in reality. Why would you need to invent, when you have both drama and comedy handed to you on a plate? Conversations about clients’ sexual preferences, the problems with Viagra Man and the inventive use of a garden gnome are both illuminating and hilarious, while some client encounters are nothing if not heart-stoppingly uncomfortable, especially when you remember that these are recorded events that happened in reality.
While the girls, and Tessa in particular, are happy to have their story told to prove that this lifestyle choice is not a sad, depressing one, Blythe’s play also depicts a more gloomy reality where the walls built to stave off confusion can only stand so many attacks before buckling. The girls each have their own issues which may flow from or to their chosen jobs, but these are hinted at rather than delved into fully; in terms of the brothel’s pay scale, it is what you would get for £40 rather than the full £60.
What The Girlfriend Experience provides is a slice of life from a world most of us know nothing about. Like the ladies’ outfits, it tantalises and teases without giving too much away.