Arts: Theatre: Privates on parade

The Vagina Monologues King's Head London
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The Independent Culture
IT SOUNDS like an uncomfortable experience, doesn't it? Let's be honest. Yes, Eve Ensler's homage to this part of the female anatomy will have the prudish squirming in their seats. But in the end, it is the seating arrangement in the clammy King's Head theatre - which requires most of the audience to sit at right angles to the stage - that causes the most discomfort. The American performer's patchwork quilt of facts and fantasies, memories and nightmares - a "schmushing" together of the testimonies of 200 women she has interviewed over the past three years - leaves you with a surprisingly warm feeling.

If there seems to be a disparity between Ensler's dignified appearance - a Louise Brooks bob, a black evening dress - and her subject matter, by the end of an hour she has convinced you that it's all in the mind; part of our cultural conditioning. "Vagina never sounds like a word you'd want to say," she grins, her eyes sealing up in mock embarrassment. It's a place akin to the Bermuda Triangle - "nobody ever reports back from there". She lays siege to this wall of silence with a barrage of wit laced with anger; the set behind her flushes shades of purple and crimson.

The show is overflowing with lists compiled from her interviewees: ways of describing "it": a poochie; a peepee; a dignity (dressing it in mink, Armani, taffeta); of letting it do the talking or moaning. The monologues mostly adopt a quirky tone, but they reveal scarred lives. "The age group between 65 and 75 was the most poignant," she says. Without caricature, she relays the formative experience of a Jewish woman who had barely thought about "down there" since 1953, when an unexpected flood of passion on a car seat elicited revulsion from her first boyfriend.

Apart from a vagina-worshipping guy called Bob, men don't come out of this too well: abusive fathers, obsessive husbands, and most chillingly, soldier-rapists. But the Vagina Monologues are not, in the main, about pointing fingers; they are about showing both sexes where to put them. Ensler leaves you hoping that familiarity will breed a little more respect.

To 8 March (0171-226 1916)