Writer: Anna Longaretti
Director: James Barry
Reviewer: Rob Cottingham
It’s not hard to see why Sex Cells is a good name for a play. It’s a pun, of course, and it also relates to biological cells. Plus it generates interest immediately into the content of the play and has one thinking about it before the play begins. There are four women who work in a factory selling sex aids over the phone, and a slightly annoying male manager, who now and again breaks up the noisy clamour of the women’s voices. Yes, it’s a very female play, and one that occasionally alienates anyone who is in possession of an x chromosome.
Firstly, Sylvie is a woman desperate to have a baby and has had several unsuccessful attempts at IVF treatment she’s so obsessed with pregnancy that she barely talks about anything else. Janice has five children and is the most grounded of the women. Tiffany is a typical Essex airhead, unable to pronounce the word Swarovski. Lastly, there is Lilian, a near-pathetic old woman who enjoys almost no intimacy with her husband and is estranged from her grown-up son.
It’s never explained why such a disparate group of women are working in a sex shop, possibly because the writer isn’t herself sure. The play is very busy at first establishing the characters of the women and information is thrown at us just a little too much. But as we are given time to get to know the characters, the play finds its groove. It helps that they are all so differentiated that even though they rarely refer to each other by name, we never lose track of who is who.
Tina Gardiner’s excellent mise-en-scène sets the backdrop of a warehouse with piles of mailing boxes in the background, and someone has invested hours to print stickers with names like Ve-nus Guytrap and M25 Delay Spray. And occasionally, we hear snippets of conversation with customers on the telephone with one of the women describing the benefits of such products, say, a penis enlarger or ‘delay spray’, a wry joke but one which gets tiresome quickly.
Luckily the writing is mainly excellent and is complemented by some fine acting. Some would choose Alison Pargeter’s Sylvie but her performance is over the top and lacks subtlety. Far more likeable and easy to root for is Kate Russell Smith’s Janice – her pragmatic character simply gets on with her life, no matter what, the few tears she sheds are quickly dried. And although her character was a complete cliché (basically a compendium of every emotionally tortured woman in entertainment from Nancy in Oliver Twist to Tiffany from Eastenders) Serena Giacomini imbued her own Tiffany with charm and warmth.
It’s said a lot that there aren’t many rôles for women in theatre, but here are four strong ones. Yes, the play is a little schematic in the way it presents its subject matter of pregnancy but these are four interesting women and it isn’t hard to see yourself in each one of them at different moments. For a debut play, Anna Longaretti has made an excellent start – she has a great ear for conversation and her play recalls the social comedy of Mike Leigh. Bravissima Anna!