Touring – reviewed at Drayton Arms Theatre, London
When it comes to teaching adolescents about the ‘facts of life’, broadly speaking there are two camps – advocating education to dispel erroneous ‘information’ or… to ‘bury one’s head in the sand’… But seeing as sex permeates all walks of life, where does one find honest, unbiased answers? Written by Natalia Knowlton and directed by Sammy Glover, Friday Night Love Poem addresses this conundrum through three young women who ‘come of age’ and have their own reasons for their respective ‘issues’.
The first narrative thread involves Kate (Cicely Long), a 21-year-old woman who is weeks away from getting married. Realising all of her social circle are single, Kate joins a support group for married women, run by its founder Paula (Vanessa Labrie).
Having grown up within the evangelical ‘purity movement’ in North America, which practises sexual abstinence for teenagers, Kate is all too familiar with Paula’s rhetoric and values. And as someone on the cusp of marriage, Kate also faces not only the first time having sex, but also living with a man. And you don’t really know someone until you live with them… Also present in ‘the group’ is Sarah (Gina Ruysen) who is taking a break from her academic career to concentrate on starting a family.
Labrie is in fine fettle as the manipulative Paula, who beneath her smiles and coaxing is a dab hand at ‘gaslighting’. She also holds entrenched opinions about what women ‘should’ do. And while on one hand Paula thinks of sex as an ‘unfit’ subject for a teenager or unmarried woman, given the chance she would gossip about it all the time – the inference being that this is a vicarious treat for her…
The ‘tension’ in the scenes stem from the dissonance between Paula’s veiled words, and her real opinions and agenda. While this is at first obvious with how Sarah is spoken to, it is through Paula’s later treatment of Kate that reveals her deep-seated views on women’s sexuality and their ‘rights’. In the world of ‘Gilead’ as depicted in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Paula would fit right in…
The play deftly shows how even within ‘the support group’, Kate’s ‘asexuality’ and lack of ‘success’ with ‘consummating’ with her husband is viewed with suspicion. Friday Night Love Poem is also the first play to my knowledge that has remotely addressed the issue of ‘Female Sexual Dysfunction’ (problems with sexual response, desire, orgasm or pain during sex) since it was covered in Fran Bushe’s recent autobiographical show Ad Libido.
The show’s second narrative involves Cecilia (Kara Chamberlain), who we later find is Kate’s younger cousin. In her own way, Cecilia’s ‘sexual odyssey’ mirrors that of Kate’s – her tastes evolve as she becomes more ‘experienced’. However, through her we see how ‘hang-ups’ assimilated at a young age can limit and stunt one’s potential for fully enjoying sex. Can you imagine going through life with never having once experienced an orgasm or oral sex? Before the 20th century perhaps, but nowadays?
The third narrative involves teenager Mia (Gina Ruysen) and her ‘coming of age’. Mia wants to fit in and when she’s invited to a ‘rainbow’ party, she jumps at the chance. In the world of the play, ‘all the way’ is not on the cards (straightaway), but ‘oral’ shows one isn’t a prude without being too ‘slutty’. However, after gossip from the other boys at school and a health scare, Mia finds herself at the calm centre of a maelstorm…
L-R: Cecily Long and Kara Chamberlain
As highlighted in other shows such as Maya Sondhi’s 2016 play Sket, phones have made the dissemination of ‘private’ images online so easy. For Mia, a momentary decision to ‘carry on’ while realising filming’s taking place leads to immediate value judgments. A ‘reputation’ amongst one’s peers is bad enough, but to have the faculty know?
There are many things to commend about Knowlton’s Friday Night Love Poem. One of these is the fact that the characters feel authentic and not ciphers bereft of depth. Another selling point is the play’s takes on female relationships – nuanced and replete with ‘shades of grey’. As shown, society’s attitudes and values regarding quality and quantity of sex are sometimes internalised by women. This can lead to women needlessly berating themselves and others for not having the ‘perfect’ sex life – much like the mythical ‘best life’ that is ‘on show’ on social media platforms such as Facebook. In this ‘hypersexualised’ world, the greatest taboo is to doubt what ‘received wisdom’ says.
© Michael Davis 2019
Friday Night Love Poem ran at Drayton Arms Theatre, London on 5th and 6th May, plus at The Warren: Theatre Box, Brighton on 8th May. It continues there on 11th and 12th May at 12.45pm, and at Camden People’s Theatre, London on 31st May and 1st June.
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