Bare necessity

Nigel Charnock celebrates the ins and outs of sex in a voracious piece of physical theatre. By Clare Bayley
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The Independent Culture
A large red plush sofa sits resplendent centre stage and provides the backdrop to a frenetic exploration of sex, love and gratification in Nigel Charnock's latest foray into the place where choreography and sexuality collide. At the start of the show we encounter three gasping, gulping, twitching lovers, each failing to express their emotions, or even to spit out a single word. Stuck in a dramatically elongated rictus of silence, they make a mockery of all those human virtues of honesty, clarity and articulacy.

They are saved by the intervention of a woman, Di Sherlock, who emerges from the audience and calls for the whole sorry tale to begin again before launching herself ballistically into a full-scale argument with her lover (Christian Flint). "Sex isn't everything," he says disingenuously. "Oh, yes, there's death as well," she retorts, with the weariness of a prima donna. Death does make a brief appearance here; but, in Charnock's creative imagination, really there is only sex.

On stage it manifests itself in a number of ways, from a floor show that wouldn't be out of place in a Soho strip joint, to the constant use of four-letter words ("cunt", "cock" and "fuck" score higher than in any piece of theatre I've yet seen). There is a voracious celebration of sex in all its forms: comical, tragical and farcical. Nothing is withheld, and most of it takes place on that long-suffering sofa.

A bi-sexual woman romps on it with a gay man, demanding "I want sperm now!" But although he would willingly oblige her for the sake of their friendship, physically he cannot rise to the occasion. Later, she (Victoria Harwood) seduces the heterosexual woman (Sherlock), who has been brutally deserted by her lover (Flint). Later still, Flint allows himself to be seduced by Harwood's gay friend (Adrian Howells). It's heartache all round, but not before a great deal of energetic, graphic, nude and beautiful sex.

Charnock's sins, artistically speaking, are never those of omission. As one who makes an artform of excess, his work is emphatically not to everybody's taste. At times, he mistakes relentless, narcissistic self- revelation for passion. His love of word-play means he can never resist a pun, while selection simply doesn't seem to be part of his writer's craft: why use one word when seven will do? There is, however, an intelligent wit and irony palpably at work, and, as always in Charnock's pieces, the physical discipline of the performance more than makes up for the linguistic and emotional profligacy.

Unusually, Charnock himself does not appear in this work, and his absence creates a welcome distance between words and action. He has chosen four exceptional performers, who are known as actors but who here give astonishing physical performances. Harwood and Sherlock particularly stand out, giving visceral, emotionally lacerating performances with absolutely no regard for their own physical or mental safety. The exuberance and recklessness of both concept and execution are utterly infectious. And, despite all the artifice, the truths the piece reveals about our sexual proclivities are undeniable.

n `Watch My Lips' is at the Drill Hall, London WC1 to 6 April, then on tour. Booking: 0171-637 8270