Work hard, play hard

Violent sex games are a "metaphor for capitalism" - so says one young writer

<strong>The Colorado

A vignette from the life of a critic. The other week, I received an email from a stranger. Her name was Jessica Luxembourg and she was inviting me to review her new play, The Colorado Session. "The play combines graphic 'In Yer Face'-style sexual content with heightened poetic language and some very beautiful film images. It's an anti-capitalist piece about what working in the City of London does to you."

Luxembourg, whose work has won prizes and has been performed at the Hackney Empire and the Soho Theatre in London, wrote a winning email, which started out declaring herself a fan of mine. But her killer point was this: the play was being performed at Manchester's 24:7 Theatre Festival, which showcases new writing in non-theatre spaces, but it was getting a one-day preview in London. "So reviewing the preview . . . would allow you to cover 24:7 without giving you the trouble of travelling to the wilderness of the far north!"

It was not, however, a cynical-seeming young woman who met me in the foyer of the little-known Camden People's Theatre. Luxembourg, short, blonde and smiley, looked hardly out of her teens. She was so pleased I had come, she invited me for a coffee round the corner. My cappuccino was bought by the equally charming and equally young Sarah Gormley, the festival's PR.

Luxembourg's enthusiasm for me extended to sharing my reservations about Gregory Burke's Black Watch, which I had recently reviewed. Then she apologised for "slagging off" a more experienced playwright. She had just watched her own play's dress rehearsal and was fussing about one of the actors changing her words. That was acceptable in naturalistic passages but not in the poetically heightened speeches. She had already lost a third of the play in cuts, though she admitted these had not irreparably damaged it. We talked more generally about writing and directing. Just before we entered the theatre, she told me that her favourite film director was Anthony Minghella.

Luxembourg's play would not have been a natural for one of his humane adaptations. It starred a dark-haired, scarlet-lipped woman called Jacqueline, played by a scary-looking, and, I imagine, word-perfect Harriet Plewis. In a bedroom kitted out with manacles, she was dressed as a dominatrix, in black tights, high heels and leather corset. For an hour she harangued a young South African, whom I took to be her client but who actually just wanted a one-night stand. "It is going to hurt. A lot," she promised. "I want to nail your dick to the wall and wank as I watch you pass out."

Donald, or "Duck", as she called him, was a dodgy South African bond dealer, eager for sexual humiliation, but less happy to be belittled verbally. His previous erotic high, it seemed, had been "dogging" on the bonnet of his Aston Martin. But Jacqueline was all chat and no whip. In an attempt to move things on, he inserted the lengthy heel of one of her Gucci boots up his bottom. Jeffrey Mundell, poor guy, played Donald.

Despite appearances, Jacqueline was not a prostitute but a City lawyer, pining for her artistically inclined film-maker boyfriend, Ethan, who had departed for Denver, his head clouded with cowboy movies. Just as Jacqueline tortured Donald, this Ethan (played by Alan Lane) tortured Jacqueline with a rambling monologue he had delivered to his videocam and that was now projected for us on a screen. Finally, lovesick Cynthia broke down. I wrote in my notebook: "Crying is the new orgasm?" "I want you to hit me," she suddenly demanded of Duck in a radical S&M twist. "OK," he replied, "I've been waiting to do it all evening, you irritating fucked-up cunt!"

After an hour of torture all round - oh yes, it hurt, all right - delivered in oppressive heat, the pair took well-earned bows. "And Jessica seemed such a nice girl," I said to Gormley, the PR, who had been sitting next to me. "I know!" she said. Luxembourg bowled up, tiggerish. I said she needed to wash her mind out. She knew she would feel embarrassed talking to people afterwards. "But," she insisted, "it's all a metaphor for capitalism."

Postscript: a few days later, Front Row on Radio 4 devoted an edition to the dearth of female playwrights in Britain. One theory goes that women find it hard to write the kind of "virile", confrontational dialogue that theatre demands. I hope the show's presenter, Mark Lawson, made it to Manchester this past week.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

A slight ache
Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Simon Russell Beale stars in a slighter Pinter.

Her Naked Skin
Olivier Theatre, London SE1
Gay love among the suffragettes at Holloway Prison.

Courtyard Theatre, Stratford- upon-Avon
David Tennant rematerialises at the RSC.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class