London Theater: 'Prudes' and 'Instructions for Correct Assembly' at the Royal Court

Jonjo O'Neill and Sophie Russell in "The Prudes," through June 2 at the Royal Court Theatre in London

Greetings from London. This review covers two productions, both at the Royal Court Theatre, where many plays and playwrights have been discovered:  The Prudes (through June 2) and Instructions for Correct Assembly (through May 19).

The Prudes, written and directed by Anthony Neilson, is a cautionary tale, a semi-funny, semi-sad, and very contemporary play. This one is for all the guys who have taken all the gender critique # lessons to heart; well, maybe heart is not exactly the wilted location Neilson has in mind. 

A couple, Jimmy (the excellent Jonjo O’Neill) and Jess (Sophie Russell), have been together six years; they have not had sex for the past 14 months and four days, and tonight’s the night to fix it. The stage, decorated like a pink-and-cream-colored seraglio, awaits their attempts at renewed passion while they sit on high stools, sipping wine, separated by a white orchid plant, explaining their case to us. That “us” when I saw it on a Saturday afternoon was mostly millenials, and the shift from knowing male laughter to knowing female laughter was both audible and hilarious as Neilson’s script touched a nerve here and then a nerve there.

Jimmy and Jess are not married (“Marriage is the relic of old-time patriarchy,” he virtuously says; “Unless you’re gay,” she wryly adds) but committed.  There is much talk about previous sex adventures, turn-offs like wearing flip-flops, and revelations of past guilts. This is less a play and more a stand-up comedy routine for a twosome.

Instructions for Correct Assembly, by Thomas Eccleshare, is directed by Hamish Pirie for what seems to be maximum inscrutability and annoyance value.  The central idea here is that two parents (Jane Horrocks and Mark Bonnar), whose son Nick (Brian Vernel) is a dead? gone? drug addict, want to assauage their guilt and sense of failure by taking another crack at parenting. The solution is a DIY son, Jan (Brian Vernel), who arrives as parts needing more than slight assembly. There are some cheap laughs about where screwdrivers are applied, and predictable Ikea-like issues with manuals and missing parts. And what parents don’t sometimes wish for a remote that with one click would shut the kid up? Ultimately the parents’ lack of moral compass is inherited by both sons, and so ends the lesson.

At the end of the published script, Eccleshare thanks the works of art that influenced him, omitting the most obvious: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the seminal work about creating a monster that then turns on you. This contemporary version is at once creepy and obvious.