Review: Sex Worker’s Opera, Ovalhouse

Opera and musical theatre have historically not been very kind in their representation of certain demographics: BME people, for example, barely figure in what we consider to be the classics and staples of opera, and though efforts continue to be made, we need only look to the row over The Golden Dragon by Musical Theatre Wales to see the work that is yet to be done.

Sex workers, too, are another group who’ve traditionally not had control over narratives that feature them in opera, let alone real life. The sex workers and allies who make up Sex Worker’s Opera, currently running at the Ovalhouse, have protested before under the slogan for every minority, “Nothing About Us Without Us”. And this production is a testament to what can be achieved when sex workers are centred, respected, and heard.

From camming and porn experiences to re-enactments and specifics of stories with clients, Siobhan Knox, Clare Quinn and Alex Etchart’s show takes care to recognise and amplify the humanity of the sex workers who contributed material to and take part in the opera. The first song, featuring protests for and by sex workers, emphasises how focusing on the voice of sex workers rather than immediately judging them as victims is key. Through the character of one woman’s sister, the production distances itself from sex worker-exclusionary feminism, though while not ignoring the danger and darkness of sex work itself. The space given to representing the terror of raids is welcome detail.

The First Lady of Sex, Charlotte Rose, stands out as a particularly strong singer, and the songs are generally very good, a cross between The Threepenny Opera and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. More attention to finding cohesive links for the transitions between numbers, however, would help the pacing of the show, and as three songs come after the climax, the expectation that the show is about to end interferes with fully appreciating these final songs. The Sex Worker’s Opera is frequently funny, shining in its sketches, and does not need its moments of improvisation to charm us. And its politics are largely consistent: though presented by a predominantly white cast, it is frank concerning the especially heightened risk faced by people of colour in sex work, and has nuanced discussion of the role sex work plays when it comes to disability. More confusingly, if addressing your audience as “Ladies, Gentlemen and Others”, to then pick out and assume the gender of members of the audience as you address them doesn’t quite add up.

The production’s continuing collaboration with sex workers around this show and theatre outreach is to be commended, and here they have created a compassionate, sensitive and fun show, which is moreover probably the finest to ever contain sprouts as anal beads.

Sex Worker’s Opera is playing at the Ovalhouse until December 2 2017

Photo: Julio Etchart

Frey Kwa Hawking

Frey Kwa Hawking

Frey Kwa Hawking is a small person, full of hate, who lives and writes in London. He likes to go to the theatre and the cinema. Sometimes they let him in. He is trans and Malaysian-Chinese. He always orders xiao long bao. Follow him on Instagram at @absentobject.