Wanderlust

Isabella Laughland and James Musgrave not really getting it on (photo: Sheila Burnett)

Isabella Laughland and James Musgrave not really getting it on (photo: Sheila Burnett)

How to write about sex? Wanderlust is a new play by young playwright Nick Payne, whose If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, was impressive at the Bush last year, and this piece deals with sex and its confusions.

Joy is a GP, married to Alan, a teacher, for 25 years, and they haven’t had sex for a year. Their son Tim is desperate to start having sex and has found Michelle to practice on. Joy meets an old flame,  through her surgery while Alan enjoys a sexual fling with Clare, a young slutty teacher. As Joy and Alan try to revive the sex in their marriage, things come to a head, missus. Joy finds zipless joy with Stephen. Alan’s dumped by Clare but Tim and Michelle have fallen in love.

The play’s most striking feature are various somewhat explicit sexual acts. Alan fucks Claire over his desk; she gives him an enthusiastic blowjob. Tim fingers, goes down on, and fucks Michelle. Joy dresses as a schoolgirl, though to no great erotic effect on Alan, and strips to her bra and knickers for a wrongly-named ‘naked picnic’ with Stephen. It’s a play with sex on the brain and it’s asking stuff about whether internet pornography has corroded the bond between sex and love; whether men and women see sex differently; the thrill of sex with strangers, and more.

The play is funny, especially at the beginning. An early scene has Stephen visit Joy in her surgery because he thinks he has thrush; his awkwardness is captured very well. There are one or two cringeingly accurate moments where people prefer to hurt each other than make contact. 

Mostly though I felt the writing hadn’t matched up to the ambition of the play. It was too happy to go for the line or the laugh than to really get to the truth of the situation. There’s a rather formalistic tendency in recent Royal Court writing, as I’ve said before that seems to favour the appearance of snappy dialogue than actually capture the thoughts and actions of people.

Here there are three vices that the play falls into: first, it is a bit pleased with its own writing. What I mean by that is that it has moments where you can tell the writer’s come up with a line, likes it and pursues the writing rather than the thought. In the middle of fucking Clare over his desk, Alan says:

I’m going to explode all over you.
Like a fucking, like a fucking galaxy

Alan kisses Clare.

Like the big fucking bang.

I can go for the first line, of course, because it’s cheesy dirty talk. I can go for the second, because it’s what Alan, who is somewhat unused to this kind of sex, might say by accident. But what about the third? It’s word association by a writer, not a fucker. It’s a joke, because the word ‘bang’ brings it back to sex, but it seems completely implausible that Alan would make a joke here. He’s having his fantasies fulfilled and prefers sex without intimacy - sharing a joke is too intimate for this moment.

Second, it indulges in fine writing. Which really means it sometimes allows itself a literary, elegiac tone that doesn’t work. Joy has a series of monologues where this is most apparent. Monologues are tough anyway and it’s a standard trap for writers to think, aha, these are places I can show my gift for sensitivity and poetry. The thing usually missed is what the actual situation is. So at the end, Joy tells a story about her honeymoon on the beach when the sea came in and took her clothes. It’s a sort of sensual moment, remembering an ease with her body, with her husband, before the rot set in. But it does so in a very uncertain way. My friend said afterwards that he spent most of the speech wondering how she got back to the hotel, and in a way he’s right. You need to think about the real situation in monologues. But more decisively, she says

There’s a bit of me that still hopes, even after all these years, that the tide might still be carrying my clothes, that they might have made it to the other side of the world.

Is there? Really? This may seem like an achingly beautiful conceit when sitting at your computer, late at night, but when spoken by a middle-aged woman it sounds simple-minded.

Finally, there are several moments where a fun scene idea overwhelms any kind of plausibility. I’m fairly certain that almost every man in the world who thought he had thrush would insist on seeing a male doctor, though Steven not only sees a woman but proceeds with the examination even when he realises he knows her. Later, Joy goes to visit Steven and suggests that have a ‘naked picnic’; that this might seem a bit prickteasy doesn’t occur to her and Steven doesn’t comment on it. Most absurd is when Michelle thinks Tim may have made her pregnant, she doesn’t just pop into Boots and get something over the counter; no, she goes to the doctor even though that’s Tim’s mother. (In fact Michelle and Tim’s relationship, cutely though it ends, is a little beyond belief.) I suppose you could work out explanations for these things but they weren’t made manifest in performance.

I’m being very harsh and in fact I enjoyed much of the play, but I’m feeling rather as if the Court’s determination to stage young plays means that it’s overexposing work that isn’t ready yet. They’ve found some good young plays - Leaves for example - but this is a play that would have been just as well served in a small fringe theatre where Nick Payne could have made his mistakes with some degree of privacy.