Edinburgh Festival - Chicken: The True Story of a Teenage Gigolo, Assembly Rooms

Cooped up in the tragi-comedy of Hollywood's seamier side
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The Independent Culture

David Henry Sterry likes to shock. Starting his play from a seat in the middle of the audience, he bounds up on to the stage, hands and arms flailing, grey curls bouncing and baggy trousers billowing, proudly prepared to act out his memoirs of life as a teenage prostitute, or "chicken".

Based on his recent book (Chicken: Love for Sale on the Streets of Hollywood, which was a New York Times bestseller), it doesn't take long for Sterry to reveal that, as a naïve teenager in Hollywood in 1974, he was drugged and raped. Taking a job at a fast-food outlet run by Sunny, a camp pimp, he then goes from frying chicken to being chicken. Thereafter, the story rolls merrily and remorselessly through his life spent servicing rich, love-starved Hollywood women (and a few men, though he insists that he didn't have sex with them) until, one day, he snaps, beats up a client and leaves his life of prostitution behind.

The play is hugely compelling to watch. Sterry has said that, for the professional, sex is a performance so it's not so surprising to find that he's a natural on the stage, easily raising a laugh by physically acting out his story - sliding his hands out in front to mime pushing a shopping cart or stumbling through a section about drunks. His real skill, though, is in mimicking the people who abused him - his rapist "Sexy" and Sunny - and in showing the full horror of the rape through a series of harrowing systematic flashbacks.

Chicken isn't a titillating play. The sex takes second place to the depressing situation of the protagonist. Neither does it have a particularly moral message. Rather than snub the people he worked with - and for - Sterry often celebrates them, referring nostalgically to Sunny's wild parties or reminiscing about tantric sex with a hippie chick client, Rainbow.

The story is told in deft, soundbitey snippets; talking about the apartment where he was raped he says: "It was dark. If this was a movie someone would say 'don't go in there'." At other times the language is more poetic, often rhyming, and a 1970s soundtrack helps get the audience in the mood.

But the boldness of the performance distracts you from what is, essentially, a horrific story, not only because of the effect those few months have had on Sterry's life but also in the sadness of the people he works for. He describes an awful afternoon with "Mommy", a woman who dresses him in her dead son's clothes before having sex with him. Then there is his first client, Georgia, who almost suffocates him beneath her skirt before admitting she's never had an orgasm.

Though he hides its impact well, ending with the triumphant story of meeting his wife and finally coming clean about his past, this is an experience that is still affecting Sterry's life 20 years later. He may act cocky, but when he jokes that he feels "trapped between my cock and a hard place", it's clear that that the comedy is hiding a tragedy.

Venue 3, 7.50pm (1hr) to 25 Aug (0131-226 2428)