Manwatching | Review by Steve Bennett at the Royal Court Theatre, London © Gage Skidmore via CC BY-SA 3.0

Manwatching

Review by Steve Bennett at the Royal Court Theatre, London

I can’t tell you who wrote Manwatching, or even who stars in it. The author of this personal monologue about straight female sexuality is keeping her identity secret, and each night her script is read by a different comedian, who’s not advertised in advance. 

Tonight it turns out to be Nick Frost, a popular choice as he walks on stage. Even though he admits ’I don’t really know what this entails’, as fills time waiting for a printer to cough out the script he’s about to read, sight unseen.

What the pages actually contain is a first-hand account of the author’s sexual experiences, from the misunderstood ‘tingle in the vagina’ as a child, through partners she confesses being ‘kinda gross’, to dark fantasies she indulges now she’s married and fears of the psychological effect such mental pornography could be having.

It’s predominantly cheeky and honest: early on she confesses that ‘aesthetically’ she prefers length over girth in her penis, speaks of that ‘repulsiveness’ can be a turn-on - talk about counterintuitive - and about her failsafe test for true desire: the ‘masturbation examination’ that becomes a running theme.

The tone is playful, with personal anecdotes mixed with a suggestion that she’s giving some more universal FYIs for the men in the room, while exploring and challenging the guilt woman are conditioned to feel about sex.

Any feminist principles underpinning the story are as important as you might think, however. And neither is the revelatory aspect. Despite the writer’s assertion that we might be ‘shocked about the extent I’m talking about masturbation’  that’s not the reaction she's getting from what amounts to a lightly entertaining romp through her loves, lusts and laments.

Anonymity allows her to be honest, she says – especially when coming to the one thing that would bring down more judgment on her than any of her sexual proclivities: rating her own attractiveness.

The USP that her thoughts come out of a man’s mouth doesn’t seem to matter much, though, and even the author is ambiguous about what she hopes to prove. Though she does reference the privilege of the male voice, and how often male writers have written female fantasies –  normally getting them wrong – so such a role-reversal is overdue.

Yet Manwatching wouldn’t work so well as stand-up, or even as a first-person theatrical monologue. Having an unprepared narrator brings a genuine freshness that more formalised performances can only synthesise. There’s certainly an added value in the comedian discovering the material for the first time, at the same time as the audience do. 

Tonight, Frost makes the script come alive, not just in an animated reading to communicate the writers’ thoughts, but with little tics that add an understated comic commentary – the sly, incredulous glance when a pint glass is suggested as a measure of penis length, a well-timed throat clearing ahead of something saucy or – especially funny – a knowing laugh that reveals something that’s struck a chord.

Are there parallels with the various men reading the piece and the various men the creator has slept with. Are some merely mechanical, ‘going through the motions’, while others add passion and inventiveness to the basic technique?

Frost certainly adds a dash of his personality to the witty writing, albeit writing that’s in need of a more substantive element beyond the breezy sex-positive gossip of a Cosmo article. But who doesn’t seek a bit of uncomplicated no-strings-attached fun every now and again? And Manwatching delivers that, even if it fakes the climax.

• Manwatching is at the Royal Court Theatre in London until Saturday, then at the MAC Belfast on June 18 with  Tommy Tiernan announced as the narrator, at Latitude with Seann Walsh and at Roundabout @ Summerhall during the Edinburgh Fringe, when the narrators will again be unannounced.

Review date: 18 May 2017
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