A woman and a man are going to have sex. They need to have sex, in fact. It might be now or never. In Anthony Neilson’s The Prudes, neither character is in fact any more prudish than the rest of us – but there are plenty of other problems to contend with, and the clock is ticking.

This production at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs boasts a set which is lush simply to be in. Designed by Fly Davis, pink satin drapes the ceiling and walls, a thick pink carpet and a central pink, sponge-like judo mat all contribute to a space which suggests, more than anything, the inside of a vagina. A lace curtain running along the back of the stage and a potted white orchid, however, introduce a slightly more middle-aged, fussy tone to things, and age is certainly weighing heavily on these characters’ minds. Jimmy (Jonjo O’Neill) can’t get it up for his partner, Jess (Sophie Russell), who’s taking it as a sure sign of his disinterest, and in their attempts to have it out (or off) with each other, it seems it might not be the fault of these two individuals alone.

Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting and Nick Powell’s sound design together with the fantastic set make up the strongest part of The Prudes: an instantly and irreverently reactive world for Jimmy and Jess, ready at every point to emphasise or undermine their efforts to connect with each other properly. We’re told how much this couple loves each other, but every step forwards sees two steps back. Neilson is using these characters to examine the inescapable and sinister pressures of gender in our personal relationships, but the play is continually let down by some very safe humour, falling back into ironclad stereotypes of what women are like versus what men are like. Men want something and women are scandalised. Men masturbate more than women, and make less of a deal out of it.

There’s compassion here for women and the violence against them, especially in the rather forced Goldilocks metaphor used by Jess, but far more of The Prudes is dedicated to Jimmy’s interiority than Jess’. We see what he initially desired about her, what he hopes from sex with her in the future, his complicated feelings towards the porn he watches, his masturbation, and some dubious actions of his in the past. Jess gets to express her righteous frustration with Jimmy, with men who have hurt her and the patriarchy in a larger sense, and that’s about it. In this way Neilson’s play never really breaks new ground, and by the end, it feels as if we’ve lost sight of Jess, behind all of Jimmy’s male, liberal guilt. Couldn’t she play a bigger part in this satirising of men like Jimmy?

The Prudes sees both O’Neill and Russell turn in funny and moving performances, but in a play ostensibly about sex, we never hear what the woman actually wants, apart from to not be a victim. She’s willing to end the relationship if sex doesn’t happen, but any actual desire remains entirely un-sketched, for us as for her partner.

The Prudes is playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 2 June 2018. 

Photo: Manuel Harlan