[author post rating] (3/5 stars)
You have to hand it to whoever at Natural Shocks thought of pitching the PEEP tent – all black industrial plastic and lurid pink neon – right in the middle of the children’s playground at George Square Gardens. It’s strangely appropriate that the gleeful laughter of innocents should occasionally pierce through the silences in these sad and seedy stories from playwright Kefi Chadwick, a jolting and poignant reminder of the ordinary world, entirely oblivious to the queasy thrills going on inside. Now it’s often said that a truly accomplished piece of naturalistic theatre should make us feel like we’re eavesdropping, but PEEP takes the notion of theatrical voyeurism to a whole new, and really quite literal, level. Sequestered away in our individual booths, we watch painful private lives play out through the one-way mirror, listening through headphones like particularly perverted surveillance operatives. It’s difficult to deny the illicit appeal of complete anonymity, and whether you find it liberating or isolating, PEEP is best described as an experience like no other. Considering its radical reconfiguring of usual modes of spectatorship, it seems unfortunate that these two brief plays from Kefi Chadwick fail to really exploit the tantalising possibilities of PEEP’s seductive set-up.
Despite the groans and sighs of pornographic pleasure that invade our heads as we wait for the plays to begin, Chadwick ‘s unglamorous snapshots of unsatisfied sex lives prefer to investigate the cold and clinical side of things – the arranged encounters and averted attempts at seduction where desire is too easily subsumed by crippling awkwardness and anxiety.
The first offering, La Petite Mort, is a well-executed but resolutely predictable tale of domestic dissatisfaction. A married woman meets men in a cheap hotel room for sessions of uncomplicated se and, however that sounds, it’s certainly not some bleak portrait of nymphomania. In fact, she talks of it in terms of simple need, like food or sleep – hence why she’s a little thrown off when today’s appointment isn’t as eager to get down to it as she is. There’s a quite heartbreaking disruption of the dominant naturalism when the impotent husband lies awake in the rumpled bed, sandwiched between the post-coital pair as they put on their clothes in businesslike silence, but otherwise, the entire thing’s so very understated that the sense of immediacy starts to flag, and there’s not much incentive to keep watching.
The second play, Sex Life, has a similarly dispiriting focus – a pair of new parents whose raunchy rendezvous have become a thing of the distant past thanks to midnight feeds and shattered self-esteem. While it’s a refreshingly honest portrait of the strain of parenthood, Sex Life still lacks crucial momentum or even real poignancy as our outsider perspective instigates a growing sense of indifference rather than insight. The use of blackout when things really start to heat up calls us out on our somewhat depraved desire to see something saucy, but by contradicting PEEP’s “see everything” suggestiveness, the experience is somewhat subdued.
To be honest, we don’t witness anything that we’d be too coy to experience alongside others, and as much as the peepshow setting gives the initial moments an undeniable erotic electricity, the fact that we might as well not exist for the performers starts to sever us from the action. Perhaps it’s because we don’t feel bound to them by the usual complicity which comes from sharing a space that it becomes remarkably easy to switch off once the sense of novelty dissipates. Still, PEEP runs a revolving retinue of plays from midday to near midnight – perhaps one of them can deliver on Natural Shocks’s provocative promise.
Peep is playing at Assembly George Square Gardens until 26 August. For more information and tickets, please see the Edinburgh Fringe website.