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
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.