How to describe Better Than Sex: Power is Sexy? That’s a tough question.
To start with the easy labels, it’s billed as a “musical comedy”, and gets quite mock-operatic at times. That’s in terms of how it sounds and feels.
In dialogue and lyrics it is, well, distinctive – “let’s conspire tonight/we’ve got dynamite”, “he’s one good king/ you can’t get rid of him”. There’s some lines without sexual references or expletives – just not a lot. “Fuck email, we’ll tell them to bugger off”.
Its subject, very, very loosely, is the Gunpowder Plot, although that’s a thin underlay beneath satirical comments on contemporary politics and society – it’s the Gunpowder Plot with mobile phones and Channel 5.
It’s translated from Hungarian, having been commissioned by the University of Theatre and Television there, where the show originally opened in 2009.
And without fear of contradition, you could call it surreal.
There are some brilliant moments – my favourite was King James (Timi Charles-Fadipe, who also plays Guy Fawkes, in an extraordinary blond whig – very not 17th-century) watching a “how to be a dictator” video (styled on exercise videos), ranging from Napoleon to the older Bush, stopping at Thatcher along the way. And Lady Domina, as James’s transexual courtesan-cum-press secretary delivers press conferences that are delightfully on the money.
The choreography, by Shih-Huang Hsu, was also fine, and some of the clowning scenes between Servina (Barbara Zemper – who displayed the finest singing voice here) and the butler (Duncan Wilkins), their nature playing off a running Shakespeare-as-speechwriter gag running through the show, were notably excellent. Although they were perhaps in the end a touch repetitive.
But there were some technical faults – the music too often drowned out the lyrics, and the projection of videos through the actors was distracting (the fact the video shook when the upstairs show got lively has, I’m afraid to just be put down to the realities of the fringe and I won’t hold it against the production – but perhaps some cushioning rubber pads would help?)
What left me most uncomfortable, however, was the character of Shylock the moneylender. Sure, it tied with the Shakespeare gag, sure you might argue for period veracity (not that that’s held back anything else), but I still was left squirming with this stereotypical character, who we’re told is from Golders Green. He could easily have been an East End gangster, or any other cartoon-character baddie from London’s history – the racial choice and presentation left a nasty taste.
So can I recommend it, overall? Well, it kind of depends. Some people will really enjoy this show, a great many would class it as near-torture.
Judge for yourself from the description…
The show continues at the Courtyard Theatre until August 29.