The sex-themed shows that turn Edinburgh into sin city during August
Pole dancers, prostitutes and rampant bedhoppers at the 2010 Fringe
This article is from 2010.
This August, playwrights and comedians will be exploring pole dancers, prostitutes and rampant bedhoppers as Edinburgh is invaded by women talking frankly about sex. Yasmin Sulaiman just wants to know exactly what is hectic massage?
'Coming back from seeing the second Sex and the City film,’ says live artist Bryony Kimmings, ‘I was absolutely disgusted.’ And she’s not the only one groaning about the latest instalment of this once groundbreaking explicit comedy about the sexual lives of four New York women. Despite taking the top spot at the UK box office in its first week of release, Carrie Bradshaw’s most recent exploits have been roundly panned for a lacklustre plot and unimaginative storyline. Nevertheless, on its release in 1998, the HBO show became a landmark in modern television. Together with the worldwide theatre hit, The Vagina Monologues, it represents the moment when it was officially OK for women’s sexual experiences to be the centre of attention in mainstream comedy and drama.
But what has the new film got so wrong? For Kimmings, it’s become an ideal example of how formulated women are by social rules. Her newest live work – Sex Idiot – partly aims to counteract these expectations through a series of acts involving songs, poetry and a moustache made from her audience’s pubic hairs. Following similar narrative lines to Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers and Chris Waitt’s much discussed documentary A Complete History of My Sexual Failures (2008), Sex Idiot traces Kimmings’ timeline of sexual partners, a project sparked off by the discovery that she had contracted an STI.
‘When I found out, I didn’t know what was going on,’ she explains. ‘I was charged with this need to be honest and be myself in my live work. But I also wanted to be a little bit scientific, a little bit detached; I didn’t want it to be completely “Dear Diary”. Let’s see if I do this mathematically, if I retrace this, what happens? It didn’t really end up like that because it became very emotional but that’s where the idea came from.’
Kimmings’ offering is far from the only show with a bold female sexual attitude at its core. Wild Card Kitty, Scotland’s answer to Dita Von Teese, presents the burlesque showcase Your Little Princess is My Little Whore, while Gemma Goggin’s stand-up show, Get Laid or Die Trying, will chart the LAMDA-trained actress’ sexual past. Similarly, Alison Goldie’s Lady in Bed, part of the ever-expanding Free Fringe, claims to map out the comedian’s carnal adventures from the 1970s to the present. But while all of these shows celebrate their protagonists’ sexual conquests, Hannah Chalmers’ Stripped stems partially from her failure to do just that.
The play draws on Chalmers’ six-month stint as a pole dancer, a job she was forced to give up when tips became scarce. ‘I think to make good money as a stripper it takes time to actually get good at it and persuade the customers to actually give you their money and I got a bit too friendly. I would have a chat with the customer, but it would be a friendly chat. By the end, they didn’t want a dance, they just wanted to chat some more or take me out, so I didn’t make much money anyway.’ Chalmers, who wrote and acts in the one-woman show, claims that one of her primary aims is to show audiences what the world of the strip club is really like. The story revolves around Baby, a fledgling pole dancer whose naivety is quickly wrested from her as she falls deeper into the world of stripping.
And while the story is not autobiographical, Chalmers is keen to point out that the boundaries which Baby is forced to push represent problems that highlight the thin line between selling a sexual performance and selling sex itself. ‘When I was working as a stripper I occasionally got offered a lot of money to go back with customers,’ she recalls. ‘And I’m sure there were a lot of girls that did. I have to admit, I was tempted a couple of times, but I just thought there’s too much danger, too much risk involved. But once those boundaries are pushed, it’s definitely easier to go further.’ In the end, the play forces us to look at the different ways in which men and women view sex and its relationship with money. ‘I’ve worked as a shot girl for the last two and a half years,’ says Chalmers. ‘That’s mainly about chatting up and flirting with men and being sexy and fun. So there’s money to be made from attractive women using their sexuality.’
But while Chalmers insists that Stripped is as much about the empowering aspects of stripping, alongside its competitive and exploitative elements, the seemingly inextricable connection between sex and money that she identifies opens up a much darker side to female sexual experiences. Certainly, while Bradshaw and company might not actually sell sex, the huge success of the Sex and the City franchise demonstrates its inherent marketability. In Rory Kilalea’s play Colours, however, the relationship between sex and money is more direct and sinister. The winner of the Oxfam Susie Smith Memorial Prize in 2009, it revolves around a woman’s struggle to survive following her husband’s death. Set in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, she is forced to sell her body for sex and eventually contracts HIV.
According to Kilalea, the story was partially inspired by a real-life encounter he had with a sex worker in Harare who jumped into his car and propositioned him. ‘I declined as politely as I could,’ he says, ‘but we got chatting and that’s when she told me that she was doing the job because she had no other way to survive.’ Nevertheless, though Colours has a destructive sexual experience at its core, it’s also about fundamental issues of identity. The woman in question is mixed-race, and the status of mixed-race Zimbabweans is an issue that Kilalea is keen to address. ‘After Mugabe’s government became more and more corrupt, there was a reverse of racism from the Rhodesia days. And as I knew many people who were mixed-race, I wondered how the views of the society that eventually started invading farms and destroying people’s livelihoods would impact on someone of a mixed-race background.’
This idea of identity is at the heart of Jo Wharmby’s show Let’s Talk About Sex. Part stand-up, part instruction, the production draws on her round-the-world travels and her real-life sexual encounters. So far so glamorous, but central to Wharmby’s story is the accident she suffered in her early 20s, resulting in a wheelchair-confined year before compensation paid for her global adventures. It was a chance meeting in Sydney that led to her career choice as a professional Hellerworker, a type of ‘hectic massage’ that she credits with improving her own sex life and that of her clients.
‘The important difference between this and other types of massage is that I teach you how to use your body properly again, literally, how to walk from scratch,’ says Wharmby. ‘Part of the series of work is that we have to free up people’s pelvises. It’s very intimate work and I have to discuss my clients’ sex lives with them in order to do this.’
However, while Wharmby may be offering a specifically female perspective on sex – in particular, how Hellerwork helped her reclaim her femininity after the accident – she’s eager to stress that her show is meant to entertain men as well. ‘Take The Vagina Monologues,’ she says. ‘It’s brilliant but it’s seen as a girls’ night out and can be quite man-bashing. I didn’t want that to be the case with my show because, let’s face it, it’s the men that need to learn most of the things I teach, so I need them to come and not feel picked on. So far, everybody’s gone away learning at least one thing.’
Ultimately, while many of the shows tackling the subject of women and sex at this year’s Fringe come from diverse perspectives, Jo Wharmby’s desire to redress an existing imbalance is typical. In Hannah Chalmers’ case, it’s an eagerness to provide accurate insight into the world of the strip club, while Rory Kilalea does not simply want to depict an HIV positive sex worker but also what it means to be in that position in Zimbabwe when you’re neither black nor white. And for Bryony Kimmings, it’s about combating the superficial images of women and carnal pleasure peddled by Sex and the City and its ilk: ‘My show is about my sex life and some people might say that’s gross and that they don’t want to hear about it. But maybe it’ll give people the correct impression of what women are really like. And that’s more than just Louis Vuitton handbags.’
Sex Idiot, Zoo Roxy, Roxburgh Place, 0131 662 6892, 8–30 Aug, 8.20pm, £7. Preview 6 Aug, £5;
Your Little Princess is My Little Whore, Surgeons Hall, Nicolson Street, 08455 088 515, 16–28 Aug (not 22), 10.40pm, £8 (£7);
Gemma Goggin, Gilded Balloon Teviot, Bristo Square, 0131 622 6552, 8–30 Aug (not 23), 1.30pm, £7–£8 (£6–£7). Previews 4–7 Aug, £5;
Lady in Bed, The Hive, Niddry Street, 0131 556 0444, 5–22 Aug (not 15), 4.55pm, free;
Stripped, Gilded Balloon Teviot, Bristo Square, 0131 622 6552, 6–30 Aug (not 16), 4.15pm, £10 (£8). Previews 4 & 5 Aug, £5;
Colours, Assembly Hall, Mound Place, 0131 623 3030, 7–29 Aug (not 16), 10.50am, £10–£11 (£9–£10). Previews 5 & 6 Aug, £5;
Let’s Talk About Sex, The Caves, Cowgate, 0131 556 5375, 7–29 Aug (not 16), midnight, £6–£7 (£5). Previews 5 & 6 Aug, £5.