One Hour Only, Underbelly

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

AJ’s mates have bought him a banging present for his 21st birthday – quite literally.

Out of place in a classy London brothel, the gift he ends up with is Marly, a cash-strapped student in her first night on the job, with whom he has more in common than he expected.

This is the somewhat contrived but dramatically fruitful set-up of Sabrina Mahfouz’s new play, a bite-sized meditation on youth, sexual politics and the economics of power. As soon as Marly’s mask slips and it becomes clear that this will be no usual encounter between prostitute and client, the unlikely situation becomes a platform for surprisingly honest discussion and debate between the pair. They might remain clothed, but the conversation is naked.

Marly, who likes sex but likes money more, argues her defence by suggesting that no exchange involving money is ever truly empowering; we are all, to a lesser or greater extent, whoring out our talents. Falling prey to Pretty Woman syndrome, AJ tries to talk Marly out of her morally dubious profession, but Mahfouz’s writing is too clever to allow this to become anything nearing black and white.

Through AJ and Marly, the piece asks questions about ambition, money, knowledge, the nature of modern feminism. There is also an acute observation about the way in which sex is viewed in modern Britain, with the line between casual one-night stands and paid-for encounters growing ever more blurred.

AJ and Marly’s conversational dance, engagingly played by Faraz Ayub and Nadia Clifford, takes place in a naturalistic, clinical hotel room, a naturalism that is offset by a striking back wall of lightbulbs in Francesca Reidy’s design. This simple yet fascinating feature fades and brightens, pulsing with the power games between man and woman, crackling like their obvious chemistry. Although Mahfouz’s intriguing, intelligent piece has yet to quite reach its own lightbulb moment, as the hour ticks past it leaves everyone wanting a few more minutes.

Photo: Jassy Earl

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