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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Girlfriend Experience

We have Tessa, curvy dress size 14, very bubbly, offers most services. We also have Susie, curvy dress size 18 to 20, very passionate lady, offers the full girlfriend experience. — answering the phone
The Girlfriend Experience
Debbie Chazen as Tess and Beatie Edney as Susie
(Photo: Alastair Muir)
Theatre Maker Alecky Blythe has compiled her play The Girlfriend Experience from the real life conversations of women sex workers. The actors wear headphones which, every performance, continuously stream the recorded and edited tapes Alecky made from real women working in a small brothel, the words of which the actors repeat onstage. The women are not the drug addicts who provide sex in return for money to feed their addiction, nor are they the high end glamorous escort girls who charge hundreds of pounds a night, but the women in the middle. These are not the women you recognise plying their trade on the street but anonymous, ordinary middle aged women who make a living in the oldest profession of them all.

The title refers principally to the type of service the women offer. From an ordinary maisonette with two bedrooms, they receive clients pre-booked usually for half an hour. Theirs is a service where the men feel that they are men friends having sex with a girl friend, with good conversation, friendship and kissing. Their words have an intimate, divulging naturalness which is both endearing and rather simple, even naive at times. There is plenty of titillation for those looking for it as the women discuss the predilections of their clients, all wonderfully played in a variety of costume and accents by the versatile Alex Lowe (who is well known for his spoof radio calls to a phone in radio show as Barry from Watford).

Debbie Chazen plays Tessa, a big hearted landlady who opens the play showing fellow worker Susie (Beatie Edney) around the new premises. Susie, Little Miss Positive, wide eyed and twittering rapidly, waxes lyrical at everything she sees while Tessa puffs up with house pride and expresses her regret that her Chesterfield sofa hasn't yet been delivered. The women change into their working clothes, lots of black see through underwear and boa trimmed mules or kinky boots before being interrupted by the arrival of client number one, known as Viagra Man, whose chemically enhanced performance is quite demanding for these working women.

Their conversation is unaffected and very funny with its interspersed descriptions of the clientele. Both Tessa and Susie get involved with a client who wants to see them outside work and the romance of this shows the way they divorce their working lives from sex outside work. As Susie says, "I get good sex. I get bad sex. I get mediocre sex. Quite frankly I get all the sex I need." It is love that they are seeking and their lack of cynicism is surprising. The man friend says to Susie, "I'd like to take you out and see you with your clothes on!" The play also shows the downside: trying to get rid of a sinister, persistent and very demanding client, the irritation of anonymous, obscene phone calls and the youngest member of the group, Poppy (Lu Corfield) who has cigarette burns on her arm from self harming and who knocks back the vodka in order to face the clients.

The Girlfriend Experience opened last year at the Royal Court and sold out, so unusually it transfers to the Young Vic this year for another run. The buxom actors are both appealing and funny with Debbie Chazen taking the honours as the capacious, mother hen Tessa and Beatie Edney as sweet, garrulous Susie. Both have dreams: Susie is funding medical treatment for her terminally sick father and Tessa is thrilled at her teenage daughter's success in public examinations. The delivery is interesting with the constant reminder to the audience that these are real words with the visible earphones in place where a small and less obtrusive earpiece would not have underlined the point. It does mean that as they get changed or put on wigs, they get tied up with wires and clothing with a sense of humour. Every so often the women will engage with the vacant space reminding us that Alecky was there listening to them and recording them.

Credit must go to hard working Alex Lowe for his numerous and rapid costume changes as all the punters, whose different trousered legs we see arriving at street level, through a cut out window above the rooms of the house. The action takes place in the living room with doors to the bedrooms and kitchen/bathroom and disturbing noises off from Tessa as she fake (?) climaxes in high C from a bedroom. There are small, accurate details like the bag of toiletries they take into the room with the client and expressions like no bare-back to describe rules about condom use.

You will laugh at the salacious detail but you will also be fascinated by the life they lead. The title The Girlfriend Experience has a special irony as we come to understand how much these women would also like to be an ordinary girlfriend.

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The Girlfriend Experience
Written by Alecky Blythe
Directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins

With: Debbie Chazen, Beatie Edney, Lu Corfield, Alex Lowe, Esther Coles
Design: Lizzie Clachan
Lighting: Charles Balfour
Sound: David McSeveney
Running time: One and a half hours with no interval
Box Office: 020 8922 2922
Booking to 15th August 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 29th July 2009 performance at the Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1(Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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