Nowadays, even the old ladies can't be shocked

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The Independent Online

My favourite film moment is that wonderful image in Mel Brooks' The Producers when, at the premiere of "Springtime For Hitler", the camera cuts to the audience's reaction. Every jaw is wide open, every face startled; a matronly New Yorker spits out the line: "Talk about bad taste."

I've never been present at such a moment in the flesh. After seeing a preview of Mark Ravenhill's new play, Mother Clap's Molly House, which opens at the Royal National Theatre tomorrow, I now know that I never will. We can't ever have such a moment again because, as Ravenhill's new play – or rather, the audience reaction to it – shows, there are no longer any taboos left. We are now fully shock-absorbed.

In the first act, we're introduced to the eponymous Mother Clap, whose Molly house is the centre of the action. A Molly house, in case you don't know, was a sort of male brothel in days of old, where the participants dressed in female clothes and gave themselves women's names. Nothing especially shocking there. Male brothels, female brothels, mixed brothels: turn on the television and, if they're not quite on every night, you know what I mean. So no shocks by so far.

Then they start to speak. Mother Clap is littered with "fucks". Again, big deal. People now use the word as little more than punctuation. But there are still some words which, so I thought, retained their shock value. The "c" word, for instance. I was wrong.

We had barely settled into our seats when one of the female prostitutes on stage introduced us to what she described as her prime asset: Katie Cunt, as she called it. Did the audience bridle? Of course not. It guffawed. Just as it did when, at the end of the play, the cast sang to us on the subject of how, when it comes to pleasure, "arse beats cunt".

The second act is set in a gay house party. I suppose I must lead a sheltered life but, just as I'm not that used to watching explicit heterosexual sex on stage, so gay anal sex isn't par for the course. Well, if you like watching anal sex, rush to the Lyttelton. You get an eyeful.

But again, was there any discernible drawing in of breath in the audience? What do you think? They would probably have been more shocked if a man had smoked a cigarette live on stage.

As we sat down on our way in, I noticed an elderly lady in the row in front. I turned to my companion and remarked that, likely as not, the lady would be gone within half an hour. After all, Ravenhill has said repeatedly how he doesn't want his parents to see his plays which, considering his most successful one, Shopping and Fucking, had one character asking another to do things with a a screwdriver that one doesn't like to think about, isn't surprising.

Forget it. I sat transfixed by her reaction: she was in hysterics, enjoying the show – and, presumably, the anal sex – as much as everyone else.

The remarkable thing about the reaction was that there wasn't one, beyond enjoyment, and the sort of welcoming reception that a nice Alan Ayckbourn play gets. Looks may be superficial, but it looked like a typical middle-class, middle-aged theatre audience. Not especially daring, not especially young.

As the Duchess said to Alice in Wonderland, "He only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases." It's difficult to see why else Ravenhill would be so relentless in his deployment of anal sex and every swearword known to the language. The irony, of course, is that we've become so used to seeing and hearing from the likes of Ravenhill about anything and everything that there is nothing left with which to tease us any more.

Stephenipollard@cs.com

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