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A whiff of imitation erotica at pounds 1,000 a ticket

For all the discreet flashes of a Kidman breast or thigh, this is safe, celebrity sex
I FELT absurdly privileged, of course. There they were, these two beautiful, famous bodies, tastefully lit and carefully choreographed, dressing and undressing, taking each other through their paces on the floor, across a bed, against a wall, over a kitchen table. And here was I, in seat A1, at what has apparently become the hottest sex show in town.

There will be those who will object to this description. The Blue Room, Sir David Hare's new adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, directed by Sam Mendes, starring none other than Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen, has an impeccable theatrical pedigree. What could be more serious and of the moment than an exploration of contemporary sexuality? Those involved in the production have been scrupulous to present and promote the play without a hint of the tawdry or the exploitative.

All in vain. Thanks to the reaction of critics and the strange times in which we live, The Blue Room has mysteriously ceased to be any kind of theatrical event so much as the show in which Nicole Kidman strips off and Iain Glen does cartwheels in the buff. Not for years has there been such a hot ticket in London.

Critics of the first night shamelessly assessed the bodies on display, one of them, Charles Spencer, famously describing its female star as "theatrical Viagra". When the man from The Daily Telegraph invokes an erection pill to describe the effect of a play, it ceases to be a purely dramatic experience and becomes a personal one. Those members of the theatre-going classes now said to be offering pounds 1,000 for a ticket are not anxious to share the latest cultural expression of one of our most famous playwrights; they are acting out of a new form of erotic curiosity. In other words, The Blue Room has become a sex show.

There's a certain cruel symmetry at work here. The public response and media excitement surrounding the work has ended up saying more about contemporary erotic obsession than anything enacted on the stage. Most mysteriously of all, the play turns out to be almost defiantly anti-erotic. Consisting of a series of sketches that follow a daisy-chain of passing encounters - the party-girl bonks the cab driver who bonks the au pair who bonks the student, and so on until the circle reaches the party girl again - it explores sex as power, as social negotiation, as vanity, as an escape from responsibility, boredom or fear of ageing.

The relationships are perfunctory, exploitative and joyless and, whether marking the beginning of an affair, a quick bunk-up or a crude financial arrangement, they invariably end unhappily. Matters of class, politics or social habit play little part. Character is not developed from scene to scene and there are only glancing references to any deeper pain or engagement. Not only is there no love in the play but, oddly, there's little sense of real desire. The whole point of it, we gather, is its pointlessness.

In other words, here is a typical night at the theatre with excellent acting, impeccable staging, a few passable jokes and some nice lines, all conveying a reassuring, slightly dated sense of the world outside, tidied up and beautified, and written by a "verray parfit" theatrical knight who over the years has learnt how to stimulate audiences without unduly disturbing them.

The idea that the presence of Nicole Kidman provides the enterprise with an element of risk could not be further from the truth. Far from providing the Viagra effect that Charles Spencer so vulgarly claimed, the presence of a flawlessly beautiful Hollywood actress and an actor with the broad shoulders and biceps of the serious workout artist provides a cool, distancing effect. For all the discreet flashes of a Kidman breast or thigh, this is safe, celebrity sex, a fantasy enacted by a silver-screen star bearing no more relation to the dangerous, messy reality of sex than the characters in Friends do to a flatshare in Willesden.

Does this explain the excitement, the pounds 1,000 ticket? Is this what we want? A whiff of imitation erotica, made respectable by fancy dialogue and a faint sense of irony? The rough material of real life, drained of real passion and confusion and transformed into safe drama with a light moral subtext and acted out on our behalf by famous, pretty actors?

I wonder what Nicole Kidman makes of all this. Outside the theatre, extending half the way down Earlham Street, a vast white stretch limo awaited the star after her performance. Soon she would be on her way, looking through darkened windows on to the streets of the strange, sex-starved, celebrity- obsessed country in which she has temporarily found herself.