Sex Workers’ Opera, Oval House Theatre, London

Devised and directed by: Experimental Experience
Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Sex Workers’ Opera, or, possibly,Sex Workers of the World Unite and Take Over? If you’re not even the slightest bit tempted to peruse the job vacancies down at your local brothel after this show has ended, you must be very hard-hearted indeed.


Using real stories from sex workers from around the world, this musical, more revue than opera, seeks to debunk the myths that are associated with prostitution; the idea that sex workers are in need of rescue, or that they are all drug addicts. The opera of the title suggests that these stories will be epic or tragic, but surprisingly many of the sex workers we meet have very ordinary lives.

With its flexible working hours and the degree of autonomy it offers, sex work is a viable career option for many women (and men). It is unfortunate then, this show proclaims, that governments still do not recognise sex work as work, and continue to criminalise those involved in the industry. As the cast chant at the start of the show, they want ‘Rights, Not Rescue’.

Before we’ve even entered the theatre we have been bombarded with trigger warnings: there will be swearing, there will be nudity, and there will be scenes of a sexual nature. More trigger warnings are given in the interval. Perhaps this reserve is titillation because the stories we see are not that shocking. We see sex workers offering marital guidance in South America, and we hear the story of one sex worker whose clients are often disabled and are most in need of the intimate touch. In the most effective scene we see the police turfing out sex workers from a brothel in Soho, as the police, along with Westminster Council, continue their ‘clean up’ of the area, and, because these workers have no rights, they have no right to appeal.

Sex workers come from all sections of society and so it is heartening to see queer, disabled and transgender bodies on stage, but it is worrying that there are no people of colour in the cast. The quality of the singing and acting is patchy, but this is part of its success. How many of the cast and musicians are actors or sex workers, we never know, and nor does it matter. Charlotte Rose is a natural comedian and has the audience hooting as she describes a porn channel devoted to vegetables, while Alex Etchart is very handy in his many roles from the clarinettist in the four-piece orchestra to the client afraid of oral sex.

The comic aspect of the show is very successful in the way it imparts to the audience ideas that we don’t really associate with sex work, that it is less dangerous than we think, and that workers often form supportive communities. This doesn’t mean that it shies away from serious issues and the minute’s silence to remember all the sex workers who have been killed is sensitively handled, and the cast takes time to point out that it is transgender women of colour who are most at risk.

There are one or two skits that could be omitted to make the second half punchier, but this is important and surprising work. The company, Experimental Experience, also host workshops for sex workers around the country where their worries and issues are turned into art, which is reparative.Sex Workers’ Operais a rare theatrical experience in that it heals, while still being a call to arms.

Runs until 2 December 2017 | Image: Julio Etchart

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