After Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s foul-mouthed phenomenon, completely took off, with a sell-out run and a smash-hit television adaptation, the pressure was always going to be on for her friend and Co-Artistic Director, Vicky Jones, when she announced her own new play earlier in 2016. If Touch had been merely an emulation of the same caustic, sexually-charged cynicism, unfavourable comparisons with Fleabag would have abounded. Similarly, if Touch had even slightly shied away from the uncomfortable topics that Fleabag confronted so forwardly, critics would have hailed it as just a diluted version of the same brand that brought nothing new to the table. Consequently, what Vicky Jones achieves with Touch is even more monumental when the context of production is considered – she manages to perfectly negotiate the line between originality and excess.
Touch tells the story of Dee, a 33-year-old woman who has recently moved to London, and is unable to get her life together. Told predominantly through the lens of Dee’s approach to sexuality, as represented by 5 contiguous partners, Touch expertly presents a woman on the verge of crisis – the audience can see that Dee’s life isn’t going to plan, even while she herself is content to “make peace with fucking everything”. Her one night stands include an 18 year old intern, a 50 year old BDSM enthusiast, and her first lesbian experience, but we do not get the sense that Dee is defined by hypersexuality – rather, she just seems curious about the world. Indeed, if the protagonist were 19 years old, the story of a Welsh girl from the valleys moving to London with a temporary job, as told through her sexual experience, might constitute a coming-of-age. As it is, Dee is 33 and yet still seems to have something to prove.
Dee’s age is something that is implicitly a driving force, but also something that could be touched on more. The blurb of the play script welcomes us to “the secret life of a 33 year old woman”, and this is obviously an age Jones has chosen deliberately as best representing the kind of purgatorial world that Dee inhabits. In the mid-range between independence and loneliness, youthful freedom and experienced sophistication, confidence and lack thereof, Dee’s story is defined by the conflict of youthful sexuality and committed maturity. Those who remember Fleabag‘s defiant concluding outburst, that “my body as it is now is really the only thing I have and when that gets old and unfuckable I might as well kill it”, might expect a similarly hedonistic brand of nihilism, but Dee’s philosophy is far more contemplative, as she considers whether she has experienced enough of the world to be able to settle down and not feel like she missed out.
Although Amy Morgan seems at times slightly too young to be 33, she nails the characterisation of Dee as a woman who isn’t extreme or desperate, but rather just floundering. While Fleabag was characterised by a darker self-awareness, Dee seems endearingly naïve by comparison, more like a disillusioned Bridget Jones than a voice of anger and frustration. Her experiences are accessible and her outlook comprehendible, and it is the honesty, rather than the urgency, of Touch that makes for such compelling viewing. It is brave of Vicky Jones to produce a play that breaks down the rose-tinted spectacles without ever pushing the boat out too far.
The one thing I am cautious of is neglecting to do justice to the comic essence of the production. Much as it frames an excellent discussion of gender politics in the modern sexual sphere, first and foremost Touch is a comedy, and in that aspect, it excels. Managing to expertly blend its message with its medium, the humour that is diffused throughout the play is both self-aware and genuinely original. The opening scene, in which Dee ostensibly gives her new boyfriend a lap dance while using the opportunity to actually tidy her flat, sets the tone for 90 minutes of laugh out loud comedy that is unabashed and also unafraid of subverting the expectation for it to be modern and edgy. There are some excellent jokes to do with sex, yes, but there are also some excellent jokes that are absolutely not.
Vicky Jones’ authorial voice is genuinely unique and refreshing, but part of the success of Touch is thanks to the creative team. Amy Morgan is well supported by an outstanding cast, out of whom Edward Bluemel is particularly funny as arrogant intern Paddy, and the rotating stage that houses Dee’s shoebox flat is employed to excellent effect. The energy of the production, overseen by dramaturg Phoebe Waller-Bridge, cannot be understated, and as the cast return to take their bows, the audience fizzles with audible excitement.
Touch is doesn’t try to be overly shocking, and doesn’t aspire to make any grand statements. Instead it is quietly self-confident, defined by its honesty, as funny as it is modern or political, and a genuine delight to watch. I am confident that this will not be the last we hear of Touch, and that we will be seeing much more of Vicky Jones in the future.
Touch is playing at the Soho Theatre until August 26th. Tickets available here: http://www.sohotheatre.com/whats-on/touch/