It’s not often as a critic that you find yourself wondering if you’re at the theatre or in a strip club.
That’s the game that House of Kittens’ Amatory Asylum plays with you. For one thing, we are after all in an underground club – albeit a swanky private members’ club in Mayfair. For another thing, there are quite a lot of women taking their clothes off. It’s a production I’m definitely glad I didn’t go to with my mum.
As we find our seats – or space to stand (more on that later) – a ‘nurse’ circulates, asking us if we are ‘No, thank you’ or ‘Yes, please’. We are already their playthings: they’re letting on less than they know. It has to be ‘Yes, please’, doesn’t it? I’m supplied with a corresponding sticker to wear.
It is these elements, carefully curated to keep the audience teetering between voyeur, victim and instigator that pulls this show away from being titillation and to something more interesting. We’re cast in the ambiguous role of doctors in an asylum. What follows is a series of vignettes, exploring different fetishes that might form part of a woman’s sexual desires. Just as we can still be shocked today by a frank exploration of female sexuality, we’re reminded of the shocking fact that it’s not long since any expression of a libido might see a woman carted off to a hospital to receive ‘appropriate help’.
House of Kittens dare us to find the kink repugnant, which would only expose us as prudish. Worse, we’d be participating in the invention of a world of pure, virginal women, who would never dream of indulging (or having) desires.
Were House of Kittens not a female collective – led, created, directed and performed by women – I’d have found this room of ogling men, craning to watch the latest set-piece, an exploitative sight. Instead, a woman behind glass loved her reflection and, sent wild by mirrors, danced with unremitting energy. A shoe-festishist didn’t stop at putting them on her feet, but owned the space with numerous pieces of footwear.
So I was convinced, and found the show unproblematic, right? Not entirely.
For one thing, the venue.
I really wanted it to work. Intimate and sordid, comfortable but discomfiting. And it almost did. The first issue was that there wasn’t enough seating for everyone. Women in stilettos, in pain after the first ten minutes of standing, could have done with a warning ahead of time. And whilst the action happened in all directions, the majority of pieces occurred on a foot-high stage that didn’t offer enough of a vantage point for all to see.
Brilliant use was made of a cigar-room to the side. Definitions of ‘sexual illnesses’ were projected onto the glass, which at the flick of a switch became a peep-show room. But even here, I had a great view but I’m sure many did not.
A larger space and cabaret seating would let the performers mingle, as was the intention but didn’t quite work. It’s the cabaret comparison that highlights whether this show is doing something truly revolutionary. The answer: not quite. Women are already reclaiming their bodies and sexuality through burlesque, circus, contemporary dance. Here, I saw only well-toned, perfect, cis-gendered bodies on display. I’d be more convinced by the mission if there were a greater diversity of women reclaiming their sexual identity – plus-size actors, trans women, women of colour.
If it’s only young, lithe white women who can reclaim this then, well, maybe we haven’t come as far as we might hope after all.
Review by Ben Ross
Dr Lili La Fleur, head of the Asylum and presiding physician of sexual psychological studies. A space for sexual liberation founded by the illustrious Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, invites audiences to become part an exclusive experiment; to act as record takers, preserving for posterity the decadent acts which they witness.
Performed across two floors of decedent surroundings with twelve individual performances, lasting from 3½ -16 minutes, Amatory Asylum explores everything from romantic love stories, to full on kink.
House of Kittens
October 10th & 11th 2019
The Wellington, 91 Jermyn Street, St James, London SW1 6JB