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  • Chris O'Rourke

Party Scene

Party Scene. Image by Jed Niezgoda


The press preamble for THISISPOPBABY's Party Scene protested far too much. Positioning the production like some non-judgemental, public information broadcast on health and safety around the Chemsex scene. Exuding the same level of sexual intensity as a carefully worded apology. The sexually subjective rendered clinically objective. Thankfully, Party Scene lives up to its name and not its preamble. Offering celebration more than interrogation, even as it tries plead the fifth. Which might account for why director and writer Phillip McMahon, and choreographer Philip Connaughton's creation feels wistful more than adventurous. Suggesting the safe distance of hindsight. Daring to be daring while omitting key voices that could have really raised questions on Chemsex. Chemsex being something of a ruse. A device to allow a number of gay men talk openly about having group sex and liking it.

Party Scene. Image by Jed Niezgoda

From clubs, sex parties and group sex, from one night stands to someone uncomfortable in their body looking to access physical pleasure, drugs have always been a part of the gay scene. But drugs with names like mephedrone, GHB and GBL, are in a different league. Prolonging and deepening that initial urge, their chemical construction fuels desire, lowers inhibitions, as well as your ability to think straight, no pun intended. Seeing as you can't buy them over the counter with your lube or condoms, their construction is unregulated, their use self-regulated. Leaving users open to a host of issues around abuse, consent, safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases, psychological and emotional trauma, addiction, and worse. Where's the fun in that?

Turns out there's quite a lot of fun in it actually, reflected in THISISPOPBABY's excellent production. Beginning with dancer Liam Bixby manipulating a hoop. A hula hoop that is, and not the crisp kind either. Manipulation becoming a key motif throughout as several superb sequences see bodies manipulated by others; sometimes with consent, sometimes in surrender, sometimes not so comfortably. A seductive welcome to the Pleasuredome, all winks, smiles, and playful choreography, finds dancers Ryan O'Neill, Anderson De Souza, Matthew Morris and Bixby telling everyone in the audience they're hot. Yet flirtatous fun soon degenerates into "sit down there while I talk to you." The aroused energy sucked from the room as hot sticky possibilities give way to staged sexiness, more catwalk than clubland; phones and bodies cleverly arranged, a curious handstand, snappy costume changes constantly repositioning the body as an object of desire. There's the occasional darker image too; a body in possible distress being robbed, another unable to remember what happened to them.

Party Scene. Image by Jed Niezgoda

If there's didacticism, it never yields enough solid information. Even its warnings suggest dangers akin to a recklessly heavy night on the town if you're unlucky. As for caution, you glean bits of advice, mostly through some clever phone messages, but the press preamble does it better. Thankfully the programme page includes a list of helpful services for those who might wade out of their depth or want to know more. For O'Neill nails Party Scene's unapologetic colours to the confrontational mast early on: this is Chemsex, it generates heat, so dry your eyes or go home. The aggressive undertones echoed in Matthew Morris's gripping monologue, in Ellen Kirk's meta-theatrical set and costuming, positioning the body as a site to be collectively watched and enjoyed. Not so much voyeuristically, though that's allowed, more presenting the gay male body as something seen, proud and present. Inhabiting a world of breaths, beats, and lighted dark, illuminated by shadows and desire. Lighted by Sarah Jane Shiels with Suzie Cummins. Shiels reinforcing her reputation as one of the countries foremost lighting designers, crafting something hot, sexy, scary, lonely, and doing much of the emotional heavy lifting. In which intimacy makes a cameo, like a nun strolling into an orgy. But when sexual partners are as interchangeable as handshakes, intimacy looks conservatively out of place. Which frames the kind of gay experience being presented. Placing the audience on three sides of the space also frames their experience, which McMahon negotiates successfully for the most part. Reminding you you don't see everything, and that the Chemsex experience doesn't speak for everyone.

Party Scene. Image by Jed Niezgoda

Throughout, Connaughton's sensitive choreography is built on a succinct simplicity, delivering beautifully executed sequences defined by fluidity and joy. McMahon's short, sharp script and economic direction offering more of the same. Serving up dance theatre with images that speak and words you can see. Yet like Pistols on Disney, Party Scene offers a sanitised, unshocking version of something real and gritty. Chemsex artified into a safe, unthreatening conversation, looking less like The Basketball Diaries so much as a rather rough weekend. Something other sexual voices - lesbian, bi, straight - who also partake of chemicals, might have challenged. As it stands, Party Scene risks positioning Chemsex as an exclusively gay male affair. Leaving one to wonder what the inclusion of women might have yielded? Pushing at taboos and boundaries in ways Party Scene suggests but never really steps up to. For Chemsex is no longer the gay male's prerogative. Not that you'd know it here.

Party Scene. Image by Jed Niezgoda

If Party Scene has an ability to shock, that might speak more to your own personal tolerance. In truth, it never really sins against sense or sensibilities. That said, Party Scene is a crucial and timely production. Its importance lying not in its lacklustre interrogation, but in its mic-drop moments of truth. As Alexa plays Lady Gaga, O'Neill in drag talks about being proud and gay, of what he needed as a gay man growing up, giving a much needed two fingers to a worrying, re-emerging homophobia (did it ever truly go away?). Party Scene declares no shame. If you want sex, have it. Just do it sensibly. Know what you can handle, physically, morally, financially, psychologically and emotionally. More importantly, if you're gay, you're okay. And you're not alone. Anyone who's got a problem with that, dry your eyes or go home. Gay is glorious and it's not going anywhere.

A truth that never gets old.

Happy Pride.

Party Scene, by Phillip McMahon and Philip Connaughton, presented by THISISPOPBABY, premiered at Cork Midsummer Festival 2022 and runs at Project Arts Centre, Dublin as part of Pride 2022 until July 2.

For more information visit Project Arts Centre.


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