After many months of planning and delays due to the impacts of Covid-19 to live entertainment, award-winning Tyneside playwright Alison Stanley was finally able to introduce the public to her brand production, Sex Is Hard Work.
Taking place at The Cluny in Newcastle Upon Tyne between 28th June-3rd July 2021, the play was unlike anything you have seen before, and I was honoured to have the opportunity to be able to share in the experience. One of Alison’s strengths as a playwright is her ability to create a platform to some of the taboo subjects of modern society, and create a safe space which does not just ensure people are not shying away from such important conversations, but also provide opportunities to challenge the sometimes hypocritical attitudes of modern society.
Sex Is Hard Work sees Alison playing the role of sex worker Madam Zee, as the audience are given an insight the funny but also harsher, darker and even heartbreaking sides of working girls, with Zee’s monlogue there to guide us through some of those realities. The play begins with Zee introducing herself to the crowd while her male sex-slave is doing everything that his mistress desires, before she gives us an overview of how she got into the profession into the first place.
Through this journey, Madam Zee shows us some of the dreams she once had, but how due to one knockback after another, how her route into the sex industry was one of the options she saw as a way to make money and put food on the table, all while trying to support her ageing dad. It is clear to see that even though Zee does show a tough exterior to the world, she does also have a heart, because despite the put downs and the complaints her dad directs her way, he is the only family she has got which she cherishes so much. Putting to side the subject of sex for a moment, what I quite liked about this frictious dialouge between Zee and her dad, is that it really makes you think about our relationships within the family setting. Zee showing us that her circumstances may not be perfect, and as much as she longs for a good father-daughter relationship, regardless of the tensions between the pair, they still make it work.
Back to the rest of the play. Once we get a bit of tease into Madam Zee’s backstory we are then taken on a journey on the different men and the encounters that she and her friends have experienced. With laughter being heard throughout the room from the crowd as they are shown a mixture of colourful male clients who seek her services, be it via sex chat lines or in person encounters, there is another important point being made - when it comes to stereotypes, as far as sex industry is concerned clients can be anyone - old, young, rich, couples, and even those after a quick thrill. You even have the celebrity clientele with their over excited personalities, quirky fetishes and their red pvc trouser looks - yup that certainly gave us all a good laugh.
What this play cleverly shows us as well, is that while men especially may use sex services you have a different range of personalities - the shy types, the secretive types, the ones who love their weird and whacky fetishes and even the ones that portray arogance and a sense of entitlement. It is with these different types of people, the laughter stops and the audience as things become much more sinister. One stand out scene being Madame Zee’s friends being brutally hit by her overly possessive and violent boyfriend. In that moment you can cut the atmosphere with a knife as it just makes us all aware of how dangerous and dark things can suddenly become for working girls, often without any warning.
As I mentioned at the beginning the play also highlights attitudes of hypocrisy within society, which is perfectly represented by Zee’s dad turning up at a flat, expecting to meet an escort, only to his shock to have Zee opening the door to him. Not expecting to see his daughter there standing in front of him, Zee’s dad frantically tries to come up with an excuse that he has come to meet a friend and has accidentally turned up to the wrong place, where in reality he was caught red handed but too embarrassed to admit it. After getting an initial shock, it is not long before her dad diverts attention by expressing his disgust at his daughter’s choice to be an escort.
The inclusion of this scene creates a very important point, which can sometimes be brushed aside especially when it comes to attitudes towards sex. This scene is an example of people being ok with using sex services themselves and providing justifications, but them passing judgement when it comes to anyone else. It really encourages us all to think about our own attitudes as a society, if we ever found ourselves in that situation - would we be too quick to judge, if secretly we were doing the same things ourselves? The most poignant line by Zee being ‘Dad, that is someone’s daughter too?’.
There are so many brilliant things I wish I could tell you about this play, but I don’t want to give it all the best things away, without giving you all the opportunity to check it out for yourself as well. What I will say though before I close is as much as women in the sex industry may own their confidence and put on a tough experience, as this play has perfectly done throughout, it is becomes less about the sex, and more about surviving.
While Sex Is Hard Work may not be for the faint hearted, this play by Alison Stanley has truly given us all the opportunity to carefully examine the attitudes of sex and what our role in that discussion looks like. The play will be available on the festival circuit including Edinburgh Fringe, so should you have the opportunity to watch, make sure you don’t miss out. I look forward to seeing even more of Alison Stanley’s exceptional work in the months and years to come.
Article By Thushara S. Chandrasiri