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Theatre Review The Censor, Hope Theatre, London

Challenging exploration of sex and censorship from Anthony Neilsen

THE CENSOR opens and ends to the Rachmaninov concerto used in the vintage film Brief Encounter but where that was all romance, repression, heartbreak and no sex whatsoever, Anthony Neilson's play presents another very different brief encounter — that between a visionary female pornographer and a male film censor.

And it’s all sex. She wants him to pass her film uncut but he’s constrained by a fictitious film board’s guidelines, as well as his own repressed sexuality. Intermittent images projected onto white muslin show us hazy fragments of flesh but the world on stage is far more real as she attempts to persuade him of the film’s tenderness and communication in graphic scenes of demonstration.
 
The pornographer and censor — brilliantly played by Suzy Whitefield and Jonathan McGarrity in an intense series of tete-a-tetes — are interrupted by out-of-time cameos from the censor’s wife (Chandrika Chevli).

She’s having an affair and trying to get some emotional reaction from her husband. “There are feelings now involved,” she tells him and we know that feelings never came into their marriage. “Sex is as much a mystery to you as happiness is.”

But the pornographer’s vision intrigues the censor, intuiting his own liberation. A hilarious episode where he tries to rewrite his porn report as if it were about an art film shows the virtuosity of Neilson’s writing.

The troubling denouement takes us to the dark side of sexual fantasy as a disturbing image from the censor’s childhood provokes a shocking and infantile action from the pornographer, thus releasing his sexuality and capacity for love.

The play, now 15 years old, is well researched. As a film censor two decades ago, I can vouch for the litany of timed sexual acts used in report writing. But we were called examiners, had good senses of humour, watched in pairs and wore casual clothes to work, unlike this lone censor’s custom-officer get-up.

But this is a work of fiction and Neilson’s departures from the reality of the BBFC serve his sexual polemic well. At times the audience looked uncomfortable, yet none of it is gratuitous and the play has integrity.

To examine the further reaches and depths of the human psyche is what art is for and bravura — and brave — acting in this three-hander and fine direction from Imogen Beech of Round Peg Theatre Company makes for a rich, if challenging, 75 minutes.

Runs July 13, box office: thehopetheatre.com

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