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Theatre Review: Fucking Men (King’s Head Theatre, London)

Fucking Men No butts about it! Ruben Jones (left) and Harper James (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Christopher Tribble.
Fucking Men

No butts about it! Ruben Jones (left) and Harper James (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Christopher Tribble.

In A Nutshell

Like great sex, Fucking Men leaves you breathless and gagging for more. A deep, sensual, and heartfelt look a humanity via sexuality.

WARNING: This review contains a lot of bad language (if the title hadn’t already given it away).

Overview

10 men, one city. Each has a sexual encounter with another man. Then, one goes on to another one with someone else, and so on. A relay of hot sex looks at why we fuck, and what it means to fuck.

Writing

Joe DiPetro adapts Arthur Schnitzler’s acclaimed and controversial La Ronde to reflect modern day LGBT culture. But despite the steamy poster and the scares/promises of full frontal male nudity and simulated gay sex, this isn’t your throw away or shallow gay play, or something that relies solely on titillation to entertain. Indeed, you know a play is good and has achieved far more than you’d expect from it when come away from Fucking Men finding that the ten good looking actors taking their clothes off and pretending to have it off with each other is actually the least interesting part of the show. What DiPietro has managed to do with Fucking Men is actually look at what it means to be human via sex and sexuality. Sticking fairly closely to the original ten vignettes of physical intimacy, there’s a variety of relationships ranging from platonic, erotic, and romantic that start to deeply explore the human condition, and specifically what it means to be partnered, to fool around, to be discrete, or to be open.

fucking me

Teaching young dogs old tricks. Euan Brockie (left) and Ruben Jones (right).

At the base of Fucking Men is DiPietro’s well thought out and fully fleshed characters. Each feels believable and real, seldom, if at all, drawing on any stereotype. There all have a specific personality disposition or pivotal backstory that form the narrative’s mechanic and structure, but its not “this guy’s the screaming queen, he’s the bear, that’s the bi boy” parade of boringly obvious signifiers that we so often have to put up with in LGBT arts. With these characters, and their faults and strengths, we suddenly find ourselves connecting and caring about Fucking Men’s people, what they learn about themselves and others, and how they develop through the sex that they have. Whether its looking at the qualities of monogamy and promiscuity, to dealing with coming out, homophobia (internalised or otherwise), and staying in the closet, every titbit is as smouldering and seductive as it is fundamentally provocative and challenging. The leap-frog of characters also provides an organic and pacey progression of the narrative and themes explored: a line-up the DiPietro has done excellently well to piece together into a way that doesn’t feel laboured or forced.

Like with any adaptation or production of La Ronde, the round number of characters and encounters means there’s a tendency for the show to drag or simply start scraping the barrel as to the number of plausible issues that can be explored. Thankfully Fucking Men has managed to strike just the right balance. All scenarios are not just varied, but believable, and coming in at the length of your average film, Fucking Men doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The only possible criticism is The Playwright as a character feels like they might be just a little too knowing a pastiche of the author themselves, especially as the play within the play a little too akin to Fucking Men. But it doesn’t mean that this feels like the weakest moment in Fucking Men, neither does this slightly self-indulgent characters diminishes Fucking Men’s overall intelligence or quality.

In short, it’s no wonder that Fucking Men is the longest running fringe play in London’s theatre history, and why it’s come back with pomp and circumstance. It’s a brilliant beacon of everything LGBT writing can and should be, but is also just as superlative an example of overall great playwriting: gay, nude, or otherwise.

Direction & Production

Fucking Men

Broom closet case. Darren Bransford (left) and Johnathan neal (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Christopher Tribble.

There’s just as much thought and nuance in the production and direction behind Fucking Men as there is in DiPietro’s celebrate writing. Jamie Simmon’s design of laundry crates and extra bits and bobs manages to conjure everything from sleazy saunas to high-flying apartments and student halls with ease, which gives director Geoffrey Hyland the room to bring out the play’s themes and let the characters’ natures play out unimpeded. Hyland makes sure the pace pushes through the slower moments ensuring Fucking Men doesn’t start to flag. Furthermore, Hyland also knows how to make the sex feel seductive without ecplising or distracting from Fucking Men’s cerebral exploration. There’s a well thought out and executed balance of sleaze and intelligence here that means Fucking Men stays high above the watershed of legitimate theatre despite its saucy title and explicit flashes of flesh, but without forgetting that its supposed to be at least a little bit erotic.

Lifting Fucking Men is Nic Farman’s lighting and the show’s sound design. Along with a great choice of music to interlude the scenes and sex, Farman brings out a literally blue passion and creates an almost dreamlike quality and helps to keep the pace going between scene changes and when tastefully and classily veiling the naughtiness going on.

Cast

Some may quibble about the production’s very attractive cast in that Fucking Men is hardly a celebration of the body diversity that’s actually present in the LGBT community. However, Fucking Men is a play about sex and requires it to be sexy, even if on a mere predictable level. However, the casts’ looks and taut bodies are second to their acting abilities. Indeed, it’s very difficult to pick out any stand-out performances among the cast. What’s more, it’s a bit difficult to write about all the excellent individuals without turning this review into a (longer) essay!

Fucking Men

Trick me once. Harper James (left) and Chris Wills (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Christopher Tribble.

As much as they very humanly portray their characters, what’s really interesting in the dynamic each cast member has with their counterpart in their two consecutive scenes. They hold on to the base of their personality but change and adapt to their respective partners, with a genuine sense of intimacy despite the explicit nature of some of the moments. There’s also a grace and a subtlety in how they perform each of the character’s hang ups and ideals. Not one actor is weaker than the other, and, in short, all are organic and bring out a humble emotional connection that reels you into their performances.

If I had to pick a favourite scene and performance, it would have to be between it would be between Richard Stemp and Johnathan Neal as The Journalist and The Actor respectively. Even though the set-up is as close to cliché as Fucking Men gets (closeted big Hollywood actor wanting to come out), and is the only scene where there isn’t any sex between the two characters, it’s a devastating part of the play with brilliant performances. The fractious and vulnerable bickering between the two closeted men, exploring homophobia and openness across two very different generations, is expertly played out with fear, hope, and loss. Stemp’s lament over his deceased and secret lover is heart-wrenching and Neal’s fear of career backlash or face a life of secrets is palpable and conflicted.

But likewise, there are astonishing performances through the rest of Fucking Men and across each and every one of its cast.

Verdict

LGBT theatre doesn’t get as cerebral as it does steamy than this. Fucking Men will seduce you theatrically, emotionally, and mentally.

Fucking Men plays at the King’s Head Theatre, London, N1 1QN until 26 September 2015. Tickets are £19.50 – £25.00 (concessions available). To book, visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.

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