All photos © Claudia Marinaro
On Channel 4, a programme called The Undateables features people who for one reason or another are considered beyond the pale with regards to securing boy/girlfriends. This group also includes people with disabilities or learning difficulties. Most people would agree that the disabled have every right to a full and active sex life like anyone else. What’s potentially more problematic are those whose ‘disabilites’ are of a cerebral kind. If they are not compos mentis and not emotionally equipped to deal with it, how can they give consent?
Written by Sarah Page and directed by Jessica Edwards, Punts offers a female-centric way of exploring intimacy, fidelity and relationships on general. Jack (Christopher Adams) is a 25-year-old male with a neurological condition that’s similar to Asperger syndrome. His father Alastair (Graham O’Mara) is a partner at a law firm, whiie his mother Antonia (Clare Lawrence-Moody) whom he is close to is a housewife, a role she has continued to adopt long after Jack and his brothers have grown up. Her concern over the emotional development of Jack has led her to the conclusion that Jack (who has shown signs of interest in the opposite sex) may never be in a fully-fledged relationship – and all that that entails… Antonia coaxes Alastair around to the idea that what Jack needs is to ‘know’ a woman, so that he won’t feel like he’s ever missed out. Only Antonia hasn’t reckoned on the consequences of opening ‘Pandora’s Box’ and the doors of attraction that swings both ways…
Of course, there is a precident for ‘help’ sought for those with disabilities. In 1990, Mark O’Brien – a polio survivor confined to an ‘iron lung’ – was attended by Cheryl Cohen Green, a licensed sex surrogate. After a number of body awareness exercises, she led him through the various steps of intimacy until he was ready for full-on sexual intercourse. This story can be found in the 2012 film The Sessions. But I digress.
Physical versus mental obstacles asides, Mark’s parents in the play are not so astute when it comes to delicate matters of this nature, with Antonia e-mailing all the sex workers in town to see who would be willing to see such an ‘unusual’ client. Enter ‘Kitty’… Played by Florence Roberts, ‘Kitty’ (her ‘working’ name’), is the same age as Mark, but more importantly, she has a young son who a) she had at the same age that Antonia had Mark (at 19-years-old) and b) Kitty’s son has a similar condition to Mark, so she’s a natural at putting him at ease.
As his first-time experience was as good as could be, Mark convinces his parents to book another session with Kitty, but there are initial unsaid concerns – especially from Antonia – who suspects feelings have developed beyond the client-surrogate paradigm. Shortly afterwards, there is news that someone has ‘outed’ Kitty’s ‘other life’ at her day job. Asides from the initial embarrassment, this has brought the interest of the police, potentially threatening Kitty’s future as a carer, plus the custody of her child…
While Punts does address sex for all strata of society, the play deftly juxtaposes this with sex’s relation to women’s status. Initially expressing liberal, ‘modern’ views, Antonia does a U-turn when she feels threatened by Kitty’s ‘hold’ on her son and her innate prejudice against women who ‘sell themselves’. Kitty has to put Antonia straight by challenging her perception of today’s sex workers. Many nowadays are educated and ‘middle class’ – writers, Ph.D students, mothers… As for Antonia, she’s never had a job, lived for 25+ years on her husband’s salary and in effect a ‘kept woman’. This conversation puts into perspective each woman’s view of empowerment, and whether sex and financial independence fits in relation with this.
As the go-between and calming influence between all parties, Alastair keeps things for the most part on an even keel. Without his cool head and intercession, things would turn out very differently for all concerned…
The four-strong cast play their respective parts with aplomb, injecting humour and pathos into this most sensitive of subjects. As for the play itself, by making ‘Kitty’ a ‘conventional’ sex worker as opposed to a therapist or ‘surrogate’, Page has been able to explore the conflicting attitudes regarding what constitutes the well-being of those on the fringes of society, as well as women in their respective circumstances.
© Michael Davis 2017
Punts runs at Theatre503 until 24th June 2017.