Jade Dowsett-Roberts as Lucy. Pictures. Hannah Kelly

The Big O

Coventry Belgrade B2


Is this a 21st Century response to The Vagina Monologues? Well, it’s certainly as punchy, and gripping, and as well acted as Eve Ensler’s legendary, in-your-face series of monologues, first staged on- and off- Broadway in 1996, and since then by numerous amateur and professional groups here and in the U.S., plus right across the world.

Vagina  gained vast fame for exploring consensual and non-consensual sexual experiences, body image, genital mutilation, vaginal care, menstruation and other sensational topics through the eyes of women of all, well most, sexual persuasions. “Probably the most important piece of political theater of the last decade" asserted the New York Times more recently.

Was The Big O in that category? Does Kim Cormack’s fresh and still original play likewise deserve being taken up worldwide? I guess so. Certainly Lotte Ruth Johnson’s production at the Belgrade made a very good case for its widespread success.

Not one for the kids. Recommendation (rightly) only for the 18-plus. “References to sex, masturbation, rape, abuse, loss of pregnancy, grief, suicide” says the warning. And the promotional details? “Female orgasm (above all). Sex toys. Faking coming. Consent. Casual vs monogamous sex. Love. Mental Health. Folklore. Bad chat up lines. Politics. PTSD. Female pleasure throughout history.”

Not sure about the history, especially as the play describes itself (as above) as an exploration of women’s sexual well-being ‘in the 21st century’: except that restrictions on women expressing themselves and their utter incomprehension of their sexual needs have doubtless peppered the ages.

But let’s be clear, this is a super play and a wonderful staging of it. Cormack herself argues “Talking about something that affects nearly all of us as human beings should not be taboo. Should not be a cause of shame.” This is a passionate play, one that does not mince words, but explores its horny subject with honesty, urgency, but also deep tenderness. The magnificent Jade Dowsett-Roberts’ profoundly poignant yet dazzling depiction of the central character, Lucy Swann is just what the doctor (and writer) ordered. 

Here is an actress who can really hold an audience in the palm of her hand.  And at the Belgrade, she does. Her projection is not all it might be (she gabbles a bit), something she might bear in mind when the production reaches Birmingham’s MAC on 7 June (and before that, The King’s Head in Islington on 6 May); yet her delivery is exquisite, entrancing, bewitching even. Like Belgrade B2, these other two are intimate venues, and the part requires intimacy above all. For much of the time, Lucy is confiding: in us; in her ‘Sex Educator’ (Esmee Cook who also plays close friend Annie), who may drive her to distraction but is someone on whom she can of course safely rely; but above all, with herself.

Esmee Cook as the sex educator, educating Lucy about . . . sex

For Lucy (of whatever young age: she could even be teenage; and perhaps – unless specified partway - the options are left constructively open) after a disturbing diagnosis which for too long puts an inhibition on her sexual expression, is essentially seeking to find herself. To confront, largely tussle with, her own psychology. Ever so young-looking with her fabulous golden locks, Jade categorically, resiliently, penetratingly prises out Lucy’s character: troubled, puzzled, anxious, angry, helpless, moody, courageous, determined. What’s particularly wonderful, and moving, is that she has such a miraculous range of facial quirks, mouth manipulations, hand gestures, positions, stances, crouches, that she finds different ones for every mood.

Hers is a real tour-de-force. Her performance, doubtless with Ruth Johnson’s additional advice, creates not just an utterly believable, genuine, poignantly distressed character, but a singularly believable one. She becomes more than an actress. She is immersed in the part: she becomes Lucy. It’s what all truly great actors manage, and that makes her a great actor (actress) too.

She’s helped, interestingly, by the lighting. It’s simple in a way, yet its Designer (unattributed, seemingly: the Belgrade offers no Programme, as is usual these days, annoyingly, frustratingly and stupidly: I had to hunt for the credits elsewhere). But surmounting a wide central spot, almost a kaleidoscope of ever so subtle light pastels – white, beige, grey-beige, yellow, light lilac - it sometimes underlines the mood(s), but also maintain additional interest in them. Its subtle switches help what’s evolving onstage: it’s enhancing, and immensely creditable.

Lucy’s pain is deep, and (as with Cook’s quasi-psychotherapist) she is appealing for help, but equally for understanding, not quite sympathy (that would be a bit out of her feisty character) but empathy, emotional enlargement, a kind of forgiveness that will enable her to free herself, be healed, and move on. Endlessly inventive, Dowsett-Roberts catches all this so perfectly: the agony; the desperation, the aching need for help.

The diagnosis which assails and appals Lucy – although her pain reaches wider than that - is one of ‘anorgasmia’ – supposedly lifelong, though it can’t surely be possible to be categorical about that. Indeed her joyous recovery at the end seems to put paid to that view. Not reaching orgasm during sex is not uncommon in women, as many doubtless know these days. (Some say as few as one quarter of women achieve orgasm during it).  


Jade Dowsett Roberts as Lucy, left, Esmee Cook in her other role as Annie, and Lisa Spencer as Dee

Here’s the historical bit: it must always have been so, over all past ages, what with men’s ignorance or indifference to women’s/girls’ stimulatory needs. It’s pointed out (there is plenty of serious humour worked into this clever script) the vulva then serves as merely a ‘sperm-bucket’: a kind of neatly sheathed wank. The reaction, disappointment, pretty near disgust, is forceful ‘Herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhoea.’ ‘Women must have the right to fuck anyone they want’. And the infuriated ‘When a woman does it (i.e. doesn’t’;p do it, orgasm), it’s “because she’s fucking unstable.” There’s probably too much ‘fuck’ and ‘fucking’ in the script, especially at one point in Part 2. Not so much screw or shag or lay. But then, it’s the right word.

 What’s focal, crucial, is if the woman, sexually aroused but without physical completion, is upset. For that in itself can intensify the miserable, unfulfilled state. Why should she have to fall back on a dildo or vibrator to stimulate her ignored clitoris, when she has a penis to do so to hand (unfortunate term); or on the spot (even worse)?  

Jade brings us the whole desolation, deprivation, indeed tragedy. Beautifully. Touchingly. What causes Lucy’s affliction? Is it stress? Depression? Certainly that’s a consequence. Some painful past happening? Some kind of poor image of her body itself? Is she just het up? Inexperienced? Too given to repressive resentment?

Her mind is a furnace of activity, yet we see her constantly experimenting, reaching out for hope, for uplift, and for solutions: dragging thoughts and ideas out of herself, even though betimes she has her counsellor.

Exercise is one of the things that might do her some good. Enter three further characters who seem incapable of not exercising. Gloriously hyperactive, sociable, a wonderful, joyous, constant visual treat. Lisa Spencer (‘Dee’) – a trained dancer, and my, does it show – is fantastic to watch, a whole education in herself, a master of movement, unbelievably creative, excitingly varied, impossibly flexible, wickedly rubbery. In a very different way to Lucy, she engages every possible manoeuvrable inch of her body – just her leg activity was example enough, but every single other part too. Galvanising. And ridiculously funny. Anything that could bend, bent. Her face was a picture. Wow, what a performer.

The three are kind of moral supports for Lucy in her dumps. Indeed, all glitter and sparkle, the trio become a kind of subplot themselves, like the three funnies in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Starting this series of gleeful, energised fandangos is Anna Bernard’s Dinah, more of a listener than Dee the adviser; kind-hearted, understanding, commiserating; yet she too takes off, the pair of them in a hilarious array of dotty costumes, joined by the charming, equally companionable Harry. All a triumph for Ruth Johnson’s staging, yet surely a lot of improvisation by all, too. Instinctive brilliance.

Their capers and antics supplied a vivid backdrop to Lucy’s unremitting anguish, her nerve-racking struggles with herself, and the world. Yet another quasi-subplot, reserved for near the end, is the reversion to (terrified) childhood featured in the story of Baba Yaga, a sort of Slavic Hansel and Gretel, a famous folk-tale in which this horrendous, gory lady, a witch capable of flying in a vast kettle, and sometimes renowned for ‘the repulsiveness of her breasts, buttocks, or vulva (relevant?), is above all an ogress who steals, cooks, and eats her victims, usually children. There’s a more positive side: she’s a guardian, with her synonymous sisters, of the fountains of the water of life, in a forest hut that, we gather, spins continually on birds' (chickens’) legs. The Stygian waters of death, too, it seems.

Jade Dowsett-Roberts took us with her every inch of this perilous journey (suicide is, after all, a dangerous possibility). We became fellow-travellers. We might even think it could happen to us. Was I thrilled by this staging? Unquestionably. Was the (mostly female) audience? You bet.

Roderic Dunnett


The Big O will be at the MAC on 07-06-23

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