Sex Cells - a stark lesson in empathy
Updated: Oct 29, 2019
“It’s mental when you think about it – some women died trying to have kids and some died trying to get rid of them.”
Most people don’t expect to find a collection of sex toys and discount cards for MysteryVibe and Bondara when they go to the theatre on a Wednesday night. But at the intimate basement venue of The Chapel Playhouse in Kings Cross, that’s what you’re signing up to with The Roses Theatre Company’s production of Anna Longaretti’s Sex Cells.
Yes, the name does more like a sex education leaflet you’d pick up in the GPs than a play but I’ll allow it since Roses didn’t write that themselves. (Sorry Anna – big fan, just not of the name.)
Directed by Emily Elfer and assisted by Nicole Wood, Sarah Penney, Katie Carey, Helen Walling-Richards and Lucy Forker star as Lily, Sylvie, Janice and Tiffany – four women working in the call centre of sex toy manufacturer, Aphrodite. Eating Lily’s homemade cakes out of the tin and drinking copious amounts of tea alongside their bumbling boss, Mr Causeway (played by Basil Massy), the four women answer the phones to customers and navigate their turbulent personal lives.
Lily is top salesperson at work but has no control over her loveless marriage or her fracturing relationship with her adult son. She’s practical, short-tempered and frequently irritated by the younger and more sentimental Sylvie who has recently moved from France and is desperately trying to have a baby.
Janice is more sympathetic to Sylvie’s emotional rollercoaster but, as a mother of five, she’s permanently exhausted and on edge holding everyone else together while simultaneously feeling that she’s lost her own identity.
"I am nothing but a mother!"
Tiffany is young and single. Always on dates with different men, always late to work and hungover when she gets there, and she’s already been through three abortions.
Meanwhile, Mr Causeway awkwardly hovers over Lily’s shoulder, attempting to get her attention and telling her how much he admires ‘strong women’.
Despite the sex toys, there’s something about Sex Cells that feels distinctly twentieth century which is odd for a play written in 2012. Lily’s judgement of Sylvie feels reminiscent of anyone’s slightly racist grandparent who can’t quite cope with foreigners. Granted, Lily’s meant to be in her sixties but I struggle to see how she’d get away with snapping so often at Sylvie’s accent and clothes in any office after the 1980s. And you’d think her co-workers (particularly twenty-nine-year-old Tiffany) would pull her up on her snide remarks.
Also, I wonder where Tiffany’s storyline went to. I’ll admit I’m not familiar with Anna Longaretti’s play so maybe she is written distinctly more secondary to the other women but Tiffany’s character felt a bit like a lipsticked jester rather than the one representing young, single women. What’s more, in a play that prides itself on discussing motherhood, I can’t help feeling that Tiffany’s three abortions are scooted over in one line. Why is there no emotional complexity to Tiffany’s character but the other women’s experiences are so delicately and respectfully deciphered?
What’s more, the gender roles feel distinctly twentieth century. Mr Causeway can’t possibly get involved in any remotely sensitive topic of conversation and cowers back to his office at the mention of anything spicier than a cup of tea. And the women’s husbands are so uninvolved they might as well be sperm donors. You wonder where the empowered partnerships are in this play. The only one with any modernity seems to be Tiffany and she’s sadly sidelined.
However, the relationships between Lily, Janice and Sylvie are delicately and sensitively explored. Whether it’s Sylvie’s sad assertion that she’s “fed up of hating every pregnant woman” she sees or the resilience of the women who “just have to carry on like normal” whether they’re experiencing issues at home or inside their own bodies, throughout the play we are constantly reminded of the burden of responsibility motherhood puts on women.
Women are responsible for getting pregnant (whether we want to or not), we’re responsible for maintaining our relationship to the father, we’re responsible for the health of the pregnancy, we’re responsible when it’s born, we’re responsible for how it turns out and we’re continuously responsible for maintaining a good relationship with that child as an adult. We face “the costs” as Sylvie puts it, “to me and my body” and are criticised whether we have Sylvie’s sentimentality or Lily’s ice queen persona. Meanwhile, the Mr Causeway’s of the world can bumble along in the background without feeling the weight of these burdens.
So, on one hand, Sex Cells needs a little more twenty-first century thinking. It needs a little more sensitivity to the issues of women like Tiffany who may only be in their twenties and be living the single life, but that doesn’t mean their experiences are less worthy of delicate analysis than the struggles of the more mature women. Tiffany’s experience certainly shouldn’t be reduced to that of a lipsticked jester. But on the other hand, for the women that the play speaks to, it’s a stark lesson in empathy and reminds us that every woman’s experience is worthy of respect and kindness whether you are a mother of five or you’re struggling you conceive one.
Sex Cells will be playing at The Chapel Playhouse every night at 7:30pm until the 27th October 2019.
*All photos courtesy of Luke Ross