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Review of Sex Workers’ Opera – Ovalhouse London

Sex Worker's Opera - photo by Julio Etchart
Sex Worker’s Opera – photo by Julio Etchart

Sex Worker’s Opera would reasonably be expected to be an opera about a sex worker and/or told from the perspective of a sex worker. But the apostrophe is in the wrong place: there are many workers represented in a cast of nine (or thirteen if counting the chamber quartet orchestra, each of whom are, for the purposes of this production, musician-actors). There are so many characters the programme has cast names but no room for character names, though to be fair, given that the show’s storylines are based on events in the lives of actual sex workers, this may also be about retaining some degree of anonymity. Further, the operatic element was there, but perhaps for all of two or three songs, and there was considerably more standalone spoken dialogue than an opera would have, given that most operas are entirely sung-through. Most of the songs are sung as though this were a musical, which is effectively what it is.

The first half is so incredibly jolly and hilarious that the second was almost inevitably darker. The show wastes no time in dealing with some prevailing attitudes towards sex workers and the difficulties they encounter. Such themes have been explored before – the Broadway musical The Life, for instance, portrays pimps and prostitutes in 1980s New York City. This, however, is a global story, or at least an international one, which is as ambitious as it sounds, demonstrated best in the telling of a number of stories simultaneously as the cast fanned out across the theatre, speaking to groups within the audience. This made the show all the more engaging, but at the same time nobody was getting the full picture. Make of that what you will.

Several political points are made during the evening’s proceedings. One attacks “the Nordic model”, which, if implemented as it has been in Sweden, would make it an offence to pay for bedroom activity, thus fining and sentencing clients rather than workers (so depriving sex workers of their customers, and their incomes). Another lampoons the Government and the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014 because of a bizarre list of what can and cannot be portrayed in online blue movies and clips. This production doesn’t say so in so many words, but it would appear the most suggestive scenes in the Carry On film series would be brought into question had such
regulations existed a generation ago.

The show is moderately paced, and this certainly isn’t one of those shows that crams in far too much into ninety minutes. Direct addresses to the audience make the production feel like a cross between a variety show and a television news broadcast, with some scenes introduced by an explanation of what was about to transpire. Sex Worker’s Opera doesn’t hold back – a scene involving police brutality was particularly harrowing.

Sex and sexuality comes in miscellaneous forms, and these are depicted in miscellaneous ways. At the performance I attended, the reactions of the audience members in the front row, who were given as much attention as though this were a stand-up comedy gig, was very nearly as entertaining as what was happening on stage. With voices unamplified, there was considerable variation in vocal projection, which made some of the musical numbers harder to listen to overall than would be ideal. In any event, the show is at its strongest in the stand-and-deliver monologues, tales of how and why these people ended up as sex workers.

The perspective put forward by this show is an intriguing one: after all, isn’t sex work as much about supply and demand as any other form of employment? There’s an element of preaching to those already converted in presenting this work to an open-minded London audience, but this doesn’t stop it from being a gritty and thoughtful production. One more thing: the cellist’s performance during ‘Canon in D Major’ by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) is worth the price of a ticket in itself.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

EXPERIMENTAL EXPERIENCE PRESENTS
Sex Workers’ Opera
What do you think of when you hear the words ‘Stripper’, ‘Escort’, ‘Pornstar’?

A street worker giving marital advice…
A webcam model and her ventriloquist dummy…
A daughter making career choices in a male-dominated world…
Whether you want to save us, judge us, lust for us or empathise, come down for a night of opera to hip-hopera, contemporary dance to pole dance, where Sex Workers take back the stage to tell our own stories in our own words.
Created and performed by Sex Workers and friends, Sex Workers’ Opera offers an unflinchingly honest, upliftingly human insight into the lives of sex workers locally and around the world.

Content warning: 16+ (contains explicit language, nudity, scenes of a sexual nature and strobe lighting)

Wed 22 Nov – Sat 2 Dec, 7:30pm
http://www.ovalhouse.com/

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