Bleach begins from a point of confession. A sharing of a tale, with a fleeting hope that somehow, the narrator can find peace. We meet Tyler in the aftermath of what began as a normal night at work, but morphed into an act of extreme sexual violence, leaving him both traumatised and strangely complicit. From here, the play begins to unfold into the present and the past, painting a picture of who Tyler Everett is now, and how he became that person.
For the most part, this works well. It would be challenging, perhaps even impossible, to understand a character without understanding their environment, and the constant flicks between past and present give Tyler a sense of a person who can’t quite let go of the past, who dwells and finds comfort in it. However, in some moments it does feel a little derailing, and so therefore perhaps does more harm than good to the piece as a whole.
I suppose it would be hard for a one man play about sex work to manage to avoid approaching the social complexities of the sex industry, but it’s still worth saying that Bleach delves into its many layers without too much unnecessary delicacy. Sex work is a job, and that’s how it’s talked about. For the most part, customers seem to be as much of an unwelcome necessity in this job as in any other.
Wrapped up in this, however, there are moments of something much softer. Talking about his long term client Roger, who seeks only what Tyler describes to us as a “non-sexual transaction” (in other words, the intimacy that his day to day life hasn’t brought him), he shifts into a very different person from the one who sneeringly lists off the character flaws of his other clients. It’s through these nuances that creator and performer Dan Ireland Reeves complicates his portrayal of sex work, encapsulating both the lonely older client with his carer still in the house, and the many other more predictable encounters.
Going to such lengths to set up the conventions of Tyler’s life only makes the shift into horror more uncomfortable when it comes, dragging us along as Tyler is forced to face his job’s absolute worst case scenario.
Ultimately, this play still relies on the shock factor of aggression towards sex workers. Without wanting to give too much away, the play’s structure does seem to suggest that life-threatening violence is essentially inevitable. In this sense, the real-life experience of sex workers feels somewhat commodified. The entire profession is still being pigeonholed into a violent, cocaine-fuelled underworld, forcing me to question if this is really a fair representation.
Personally, I’m glad that this show is happening. It’s a relief to see sex workers presented as something other than dumbed down sob stories, and it’s even better to see them presented as complex, well realised characters. Bleach isn’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.
Bleach is playing as part of the VAULT Festival until 10 February. For more information and tickets, visit the VAULT Festival website.