Trigger warning: childhood sexual abuse (CSA)
Viv Gordon’s Oral is part of The Sick of the Fringe festival 2019. The fest connects work engaging with arts and health and has been dubbed as taboo-busting in its exploration of the body and all its complexities. Gordon is a theatre-maker, mental health campaigner, and survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The show is based on her own lived experience, and she performs in it along with two others (actors Gemma Prangle and David Reakes), directed by Tom Roden.
Before the show, the producer (Sarah Blowers) provides a trigger warning and makes clear to audience members that they are free to come and go as they please if the show brings up any discomfort. The freesheet provided also offers phone numbers, websites and social media handles that can be accessed for further support. I’m acutely aware of my own lack of knowledge on this subject matter, but all of these things feel important in building a safe space between performers and spectators.
We enter the black box space of Camden People’s Theatre and Gordon opens up the subject matter to the audience with sensitivity and honesty. She has an easy, affable presence on stage. I’m struck by her bravery in talking so openly about a subject that is not talked about nearly enough, and which is so close to home for her personally. The show focuses a lot on the silencing of victims, and I am given cause to consider that, although I came in believing I don’t know anyone affected by this, it is very possible that I do.
There are some graphic references to abuse, and in particular oral abuse. These are difficult and uncomfortable to hear – which they should be – but I am left wondering about the efficacy of trigger warnings and whether they can really account for the real-time impact of difficult material.
The experience of visiting the dentist as an abuse survivor is visited multiple times throughout. Gordon talks about how triggering invasive dental procedures can be; something I would never have considered were it not for this piece. She also shares with the audience her love for the TV programme Masterchef, and how she fantasies about being a contestant. We are shown multiple versions of this fantasy in which Gordon wants to cook a dish inspired by her childhood, but her story is deemed too inappropriate for the BBC. This device taps into the taboo surrounding CSA while also bringing in some welcome comic relief. However, moments using food – chopping, blending, pouring – are less impactful than intended.
Moments tapping into childhood innocence are poignant and well accompanied by the original music of Quinta. Although extremely meaningful, the show in its current state is wobbly on its feet. There feels, to me, to be an uncertainty in how best to tackle this delicate subject theatrically. As a result, too much is attempted within the confines of an hour. But the overall message is one of hope and survival, and that is an important one that everybody can relate to.
ORAL played the Camden People’s Theatre until 7 April. For more information, see The Sick of the Fringe website.