What is a ‘normal’ sex life? It depends, I suppose, on one’s frame of reference, personal circumstances and life choices. I am reminded of a member of a religious order who wrote to her local newspaper, recalling an instance of verbal abuse. “I was called a ‘f– -ing nun’. Well, I can’t be both, can I?” This production, Ad Libido, a work in progress in more ways than one, charts the sex life of Fran Bushe. It’s an autobiographical play, with embellishments, though the said embellishments are pointed out along the way, so there’s no mystery as to what did or didn’t really happen.
I didn’t notice an age recommendation for this show, but let’s just say there’s a reason why the Pleasance Theatre scheduled it in its later evening Litmus Fest slot. To get full enjoyment out of proceedings, there’s a need to suspend the usual suspension of disbelief. For instance, it’s a tad more amusing to think Fran really has had sneezes more refreshing and enjoyable than certain sexual encounters, than it is to think of that as a mere punchline.
This isn’t just a stand-and-deliver play, though there are plenty of direct addresses to the audience. Musical numbers are sprinkled throughout the performance, in a variety of different styles, always pushing the story on. Sometimes the lyrics are banal on paper, but the delivery of lines such as “Your sex got an A-star at GCSE / Your sex got a BTEC and an NVQ Level 3 / Your sex deserves an honorary degree” produced a deserved laugh-out-loud response. Other times, there are verbatim readouts of diary entries from previous years, and though the story is not told in chronological order, Fran’s expressive and engaging manner established an excellent rapport with the audience.
In an era where even low-budget productions use, when they want to, video projections and/or digital images, I’m wasn’t sure what to make of old-fashioned acetate sheets, at least not initially. Just seeing the overhead projector brought to mind school assemblies: because the school couldn’t (apparently) afford hymn books, words to the hymns were displayed on a projector instead. Here, given what Fran put up on the projector in this performance, it’s probably just as well she used a felt tip pen drawing rather than a photograph.
Technology is more sophisticated when it came to sound, with an unusually high number of sound cues in the performance. The sound effects were not noises emanating from a bedroom, but mostly voices either of Fran’s friends or her conscience. There’s much enjoyment, in a dark humoured fashion, to be had in listening to Fran’s recollections of over-confident and, ahem, cocky young men promising the universe, only to leave her dissatisfied. Part of me wondered whether I ought to be laughing at someone having a rough time in her personal life, but when the facts of the matter are recounted in such an animated way, with a ‘but hey, I’m still here’ approach, any guilt quickly dissipates.
The climax, if I may use that term in the sense of dramatic intensity, occurs in a long scene about Fran’s experiences at a sex camp, in which participants were invited to “explore without the scrutiny of societal pressure”. Her biggest victory, then and now in the performance, seemed to be getting a camping tent up in next to no time.
An audience feedback form asks, “How would you describe what you saw to a friend?” My answer would be, “You know the list of relationship types on Facebook? ‘It’s complicated’ just about sums this play up.” The underlying message is that “we can finish at our own pace and in our own way”.
Therefore, there isn’t a traditional happy ending to Ad Libido. And that’s okay. In an admirable and authentic production such as this, an artificially neat conclusion would have been rather contrived.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Fran wants to want sex. But no matter how much Barry White, oysters and ‘50 Wild Uses for Your Loofah’ articles she consumes, she doesn’t feel like her fire’s been lit. A hilarious and moving quest of one woman in pursuit of a normal sex life.
Ad Libido tells of Fran Bushe’s own experience of Female Sexual Dysfunction (recurrent problems with sexual response, desire, orgasm or pain). It is estimated that FSD effects at least 43% of women, but there are currently 24 approved treatments for sexual dysfunction in men and none for women. The piece is written and performed by Fran Bushe, with music from Ben Champion and direction from Ellen Havard. Fran Bushe is an award-nominated comedian and a prizewinning playwright.
Ad Libido was selected for the highly competitive Litmus Fest at The Pleasance Theatre. This is a work-in-progress theatre festival, where six companies present six brand new shows over six days. Being selected for Litmus Fest includes 2 weeks of rehearsal time, 2 days of onstage/technical development, 2 days of public performances and guidance and mentoring from the Pleasance team.
The Pleasance Theatre
North Road, N7 9EF
30th September-1st October, 8.45pm
Booking information: www.pleasance.co.uk