THE CHEMSEX MONOLOGUES are related by four characters, all of them in one way or another enmeshed in the world of chemsex parties, attended mainly by gay men, where drugs such as mephedrone and GHB are consumed alongside lots of sex. It’s a modern phenomenon, and the time is ripe for a theatrical treatment.
The play begins with a 26 year old character called Narrator (his two speeches bookend the piece) who tells us about an encounter he had with a beautiful 19 year old, fuelled by copious quantities of drugs. Narrator was charmed by the younger man, and rhapsodizes about his body whilst describing the sex in terms familiar from pornography. The second monologue is by the 19 year old himself – referred to only as Nameless – who describes his crush on an eccentric character called San Sebastian, who roller-skates into Nameless’s life in Old Compton Street, then introduces him to chemsex parties hosted in a dingy flat in Stockwell by Old Mother Meph, a middle-aged American guy who procures and sells the drugs. The third speaker is Fag Hag Cath, a blonde of 40 who talks about her devoted relationship to party-goer Steve, describing his addiction to fake tan and his physical decline as the world of chemsex takes over his life. The final character, Daniel, a sexual health worker, lets us into his initiation into the chemsex scene, a milieu for which he is completely unsuited being more of a red wine man, and his meetings with Nameless.
The show is simply staged with a high NRG soundtrack, and the actors and writing do most of the work. By the third monologue, we have learnt how the characters are connected, and a convincing portrayal of their world emerges. There are moments of poignancy and a few good laughs, chiefly from Daniel, whose fish-out-of-water attempts to integrate at one of the Stockwell gatherings are very funny and nicely played by Matthew Hodson. Charly Flyte as Fag Hag Cath delivers a touching performance of someone who can only ever be an adjunct to the gay men of her circle, no matter how much she cares about them. Steve’s cruelty to her, and neediness for her, are clearly revealed in all their dysfunctionality.
The less plausible portraits are of Narrator and Nameless, the former actor lacking power, and the latter looking and sounding so robustly healthy, it is hard to imagine him as a drug addict, bent on self-destruction. He does not, of course, need to look scraggy and hollow-cheeked, but there’s just no intimation of his demise in the wholesome gym-buffed shape of Denholm Spurr.
The writing by Patrick Cash is very descriptive if a tad pedestrian. Little care is given to characters’ individual vocal identity, so they all speak the same way, and all have to wrestle with some heightened poetic phrases which sit awkwardly within the contemporary idiom used elsewhere.
The stories are at their best when most unexpected – a glimpse of interesting characterisation here, or a surprising turn of events there. However, the overall impression is of an all-too-familiar grim tale of extreme thrill-seeking and its consequences. The play begs a more stylistically innovative treatment, or deeper psychological investigation into its characters. It would be much more interesting if we found out the backstory of Nameless, the character who represents all the fallen young gay men who have lost their way in the dangerous quest for highs – just telling us what a sweetie he is underneath is not enough. A good argument for the allure of chemsex would also improve matters, much as Lou Reed’s songs about heroin contributed to understanding of its appeal. The one description of drugged sex that sounds pleasurable seems like an event that would have been just as good, if not better, if enhanced instead with a glass or two of Daniel’s Pinotage.