• Leah Quinn

Man Number Five and the darker underbelly of sex positivity.

Cw: rape; #MeToo; reference to drugs; reference to suicide

Man Number Five (2019)

“It took me a while to realise that ultimately what I thought was empowering was actually harmful to me. The real empowerment I found was self-love.”

Sex positivity is a minefield. If you haven’t heard this term before, it’s a social movement on the third and fourth-wave feminist bandwagon that celebrates people – particularly women – embracing their sexuality and living a sexually-fulfilled life whether that’s sleeping with a multitude of strangers every week, just your partner or abstaining entirely. In the words of Queer Eye, you do you, honey. But by rejecting archaic stigmas like slut-shaming and someone’s ‘number’ getting in the way, some people can misconstrue sex positivity as merely ‘fuckgirl’ behaviour. But do it healthily, get regular check-ups and be on the same, emotionally ready playing field as your partners and you’re golden.

Julia Bentley’s one-woman show Man Number Five taps into the slightly less golden side of the sex positivity movement when her show hits Edinburgh Fringe next week from the 19th-24th August. She’s spilling some serious tea on the state of modern dating, on sex positivity and on #MeToo – and how sometimes the behaviour we want to empower us can have us trusting people who actually mean us harm.

“You need to have five men at any one time – one for every weekday.”

We’ve all been there. Thinking we’re being empowered when really we’re stride of priding out of some guy’s sh*thole of a flat at 6am with our heels in our hand and the pavement swaying under our feet. F*ck.

He was attractive last night when we were six rum and cokes and a few tequilas deep and maybe the sex wasn’t actually that bad (it probably was), but now we’re gonna be late for work, and we’re still drunk and it’s a toss-up between making it to work with our eyeliner half-way down our face or calling in sick to have our boss hate us for the next three weeks. And we ask ourselves, where’s the empowerment in this again?

Tapping into this grey area between empowerment and pointlessly reckless behaviour, playwright and performer, Julia Bentley began writing Man Number Five as a classroom exercise where she studies at East 15. Having performed at Camden Fringe previously with Bashir Productions, this is the first time Bentley’s taking on Fringe alone with a dramatized version of her own experiences.

The play follows a dramatized Bentley in the days running up to her birthday. She’s dating four men: cricketer and economist Alfie who’s only ten years older than her; posh-boy Sebastian who she works with; Swedish Felix; and Tom who has an unfortunate sexually transmitted disease. But. And you’ve guessed it – she’s found Man Number Five.

Jake. Dreamy Jake. Barman and pizza delivery boy, Jake. Likes his drugs a fair bit, Jake.

With boundless energy and lightning comedy timing, Bentley calls out the way (some) girls act when they get hooked on a new boy. Why do we like him? Not really sure. He’s not exactly Prince Charming with the ket and dodgy job prospects but he’s got his claws in, somehow. Breathe, act cool – pretend you’ve not even seen him.

“And then we stalk*.”

*Only social medias; the other kind will get you arrested.

Whether it’s the fake nonchalance or find-someone-else-quick distraction sex or studying his previous girlfriends, Bentley hilariously rips into the levels of batsh*t crazy some of us go to when we’re into someone.

“Maybe I should reply tomorrow so it looks like I’ve been super busy.”

We drink our sorrows, date monotonous boys we aren’t even keen on and assert I do NOT catch feelings but girl, we got it bad and we all know it.

Bentley has the audience hooked as she shines a light on the hilarity that is modern dating and we think for a while, it’s all good. Until.

“I feel like my heart’s about to jump out of my mouth.”

Spoiler. Jake turns out not to be such a nice guy.

All of Bentley’s energy and hilarity melts away and suddenly you’re thrown into an intense paralysis as the girl with all the control loses her control over the situation. She tells herself he’s a good guy and that he’s just drunk. In trying to justify Jake’s behaviour, Bentley taps into a tradition that #MeToo has been trying to debunk – the woman’s fault, the woman’s guilt, wanting to believe that the man didn’t mean to do this, that it doesn’t really count, that maybe it’s a grey area. But this isn’t a grey area. And Bentley leaves us hanging with the question:

“When did no become a turn on? No. That’s not sexy, right?”

Analysing the relationship between empowerment and danger, Man Number Five will be relatable for a multitude of girls whether you engage in casual sex or not. Often trying to do what is right for you puts you in horrendous situations with horrendous people. Timely and poignant, Man Number Five shines a light on the nightmare that is modern dating and taps into the violent underbelly of an otherwise sexually liberated society.

Catching up with Julia after the preview to her Edinburgh show at Ram Jam Records in Kingston last week, she tells me 2017 Fringe play Dust about the aftermath of suicide inspired her to write a play about #MeToo:

“I wanted to write about a topic that’s typically censored. Dust had a great way of starting the conversation around suicide. I want to do that with Man Number Five – to take difficult experiences and say hey, it’s okay to talk about these things!”

So, you’re taking Man Number Five to Edinburgh next week – how are you feeling about that?

“I’m nervous and excited mostly! I’ve not been before and it’s a great opportunity to see the audience’s reaction and potentially develop the play from there.”

You’ve just touched on it there but do you have any plans for future work? Where would you like to show to potentially go?

“Obviously Edinburgh Fringe is massively exciting so right now I’m just buzzing for that. I’d love to maybe do a TV thing one day with one episode for each of the five guys and maybe bring it all together in one final episode. One big oh-my-god-this-makes-sense-now moment.”

Man Number Five taps into the Fleabag-esque tradition – normalising conversations about female sexuality and the idea that women are far more complicated that just that old binary of being either the slut or the virgin. Did you recognise any links to Fleabag when you were writing and rehearsing, or do you think it’s just an ongoing conversation yourself and Phoebe Waller-Bridge have tapped into?

“I love the comparison to Fleabag because obviously it’s amazing! My director in rehearsals would be shouting ‘think Fleabag!’ at me and it definitely helped with things like comic timing but ultimately, I’m really happy that Man Number Five is Man Number Five and not Fleabag 2.0. We’re just discussing similar content matter.”

Tickets for Man Number Five are available on the Edinburgh Fringe website.

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