****.5 stars

By Darby Turnbull

 Love by the hour by Caleb Darwent, currently playing at the Butterfly Club, bills itself as a comedy in the tradition of Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward and Collette; a bold distinction, but in terms of the sheer strength of this production, an apt one. The lines are sumptuously witty; some bite, some sting, some tickle but like the best theatrical repartee they artfully create a vivid portrait of the parts people play even in their most intimate moments. Coward and Wilde had to code their dissections of social and sexual mores in farcical ‘light comedy’. Darwent pays homage to that tradition but manages to elevate it into a nuanced and recognisable depiction of the ways queer people interact with each other.

Eve, played in a remarkable stage debut by Darwent, is a stylish, sophisticated and intensely charismatic sex worker. She chooses to evoke the glamourous decadence of the early 20th century in both her décor and apparel, creating an amusing extra layer to the dramaturgical influences. She is self-assured, professional and successful in her field and has just disclosed it to her circle of friends. One of her oldest friends, Ashish (Tushar Bist) has responded by making a booking with her and she has decided to go through with it. Immediately wary is her wise and supportive best friend Tress (Quinn Langham-Jones). The stage is set for a thrilling and emotionally resonant comedy of manners and boundaries. Director, Kitt Forbes displays an insightful affinity for the tone that Darwent evokes. The small stage has seldom, in my experience, looked better or utilised more elegantly than under their direction. Forbes has also arranged some witty music interludes and Oliver Ross’s lighting design bathes the set in a warm and elegant template. Making a direct connection between the hour spent with a sex worker and the hour spent with a therapist, the beautiful chaise lounge becomes a centre piece for the characters deepest vulnerabilities and emotional reckonings.

As the most emotionally possessed and put together member of the trio, Quinn Langsam Jones gives a powerhouse performance in an archetypal ‘best friend’ role in the tradition of Eve Arden or Jane Russell. We only receive two brief cameos but their radiant presence, rapid fire delivery and tender rapport with Darwent’s Eve create a beautiful sense of shared history and connection. Tress is someone who truly sees and cares about Eve unconditionally, enough to tell her the truth and Darwent brings out some lovely physical responses in her presence.

Tushar Bist is superbly well cast as Ashish, something I only truly appreciated once I could see their characterisation from the perspective of having sat through the whole play. He brings to the character a mild-mannered gentleness that gradually reveals itself to be a façade for some disturbing and toxic undercurrents, potently understandable given that he’s spent his sexual life being either fetishized or dismissed. Some of his more fraught interactions with Eve explore the subtle ways dehumanisation invades intimate moments.

An initial reservation I had was that Ash and Eve had supposedly been close friends for years but their interactions in both performance and text seemed like they were meeting for the first time. In a way they are, and the writing skilfully explores how the dynamics of a relationship change with context. Ashish’s response to feeling challenged is to become dismissive and manipulative, bending Eve’s experiences to fit his projection of her. Some of the things he says to her are so maddeningly contrary that I almost wish she’d called him out more. Bist’s achievement is how many shades they bring to a studied obliviousness with a character who is so wilfully blind to his own contradictions. Another directional coup from Forbes is to embrace the inherent theatricality of the premise to enhance the disconnect between the two characters.

It’s a singular challenge to embody a character you have written; Darwent’s triumph as Eve lies in how brilliantly they’ve trusted their instincts in the ways in which her development will sit within their comfort zone and challenge it. Eve has refined her ability to control how she is seen and how she is desired; Darwent has enough magnetism to command the stage in such a way that you can’t take your eyes off them. Like everyone, Eve has had her share of personal tragedies that have shaped how she works through intimate relationships, but she is never rendered as pitiable or tragic because she’s trans or a sex worker rather as someone who is having a perfectly organic response to her life experiences. Darwent is equally gifted at commanding the room but also in the moments where we see Eve processing her emotions in real time and calculating whether or how she will express them. I mentioned before that I wished Eve would call Ash out on his bullshit more but, there is a particular resonance in the ways that people train themselves not to, especially when they’ve been conditioned to be wary of the consequences. As a queer person who consumes a lot of media and literature, I spent much of the second act worrying about Eve’s safety, given how conditioned we are to expect narratives about trans people and sex workers to end in harm. Thankfully, this is not the story Darwent has elected to tell but it is a testament to the writing and performance that the emotional stakes for all three characters are fully felt. I only wish the play had been longer to give time to expand on theme and allow the emotions to breathe.

Love by the hour is a rich, warm and highly intelligent offering to the Midsumma festival. Darwent and Grey and their producing team, Teddy Darling and Nesceda Blake, have done a phenomenal job bringing this beautiful play to the stage. I sincerely hope that it has another life to reach a larger audience.

Until then it is playing at the Butterfly Club until January 25th.

Performances: 4   Direction: 4    Sound/lighting: 4

Set/Costumes: 4.5   Writing: 4.5

Images: Teddy Darling