The Ulster Kama Sutra
An hilarious exploration of 'the hypocrisy, the absurdity and the sexual immaturity' of our wee country
How do you put on a puppet show exploring sex and attitudes to sexuality in Northern Ireland without being coy and twee, overly explicit and offensive, or simply crass and embarrassing? Come to that, how do you review a puppet show about sex in Northern Ireland without falling into the same trap?
It's a challenge, but with The Ulster Kama Sutra, writer Andrea Montgomery and Terra Nova Productions give it a valiant shot. If the purpose of the play – starring Nuala McKeever, Caroline Curran and John Shayegh, alongside puppet versions of themselves – is to loosen people up about this uptight subject, and get them laughing, they have certainly succeeded.
I have never heard an audience laugh with such wild abandon, or leap so quickly to their feet in a standing ovation as they did in White's Tavern on the opening night of the 13th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. The Ulster Kama Sutra – derived from interviews with people from across the country – is rich in insinuation, nudge-nudge wink-wink asides and double entendres of all kinds, and the audience love it.
If anyone was expecting a deep, sensitive and mystical exploration of the ancient Indian Hindu text – and I can't really imagine anyone amongst this lively bunch were – they would be sadly mistaken. This is a big, loud, good-natured romp through the bumbling, inept and repressed Ulster sexual psyche.
So instead of a an elaborate celebration of sensitive love-making, we have a carry-out and a quick unsatisfactory fumble on the sofa. In one skit, a woman tries to spice up her sex life with a shopping spree for sex toys, but gets confused in the process and ends up buying a leaf-blower and a cattle prod.
It's certainly not intellectual humour. But it's neither snide nor sneering – the hallmarks of much contemporary comedy – and it has a certain earthy, affectionate quality which is quite endearing.
The puppets, simply operated by the actors themselves, help enormously. Big gormless heads, crazy hair, and a set of detachable breasts all add to the knockabout fun. A sour-faced nun giving a sex education lesson, using childish euphemisms such as 'dingly-dell' and 'silly whistle', goes down particularly well. (A pupil asks: 'where is the clitoris?'. The sharp answer: 'this is not a geography class').
A Paisley-esque preacher, fulminating about the evils of gay sex, gets, er, carried away with the force of his outrage. The Northern Ireland porn film shoot, where the puppets have to keep their naked bodies covered up with, respectively, a magazine and a toolbox, is shamelessly cliche-ridden, but I must admit I laughed.
My favourite skit is The Penis Monologues, featuring The Country Penis, a knitted character with a singsong Ballymena accent, musing in a maudlin fashion about his missed opportunities in life. 'Sin never came after me,' he says sadly, sipping a small cup of tea. 'I'd be delighted if it had.' This is almost poignant. And I never thought I'd say that about a talking crocheted cock.
Other material is less successful. I could do without the song about Frances, who caught VD off a boy from Tandragee. And the occasional moments of serious comment – about transgender people, say, or drunken husbands – are jarring. They just don't fit in this slapstick show.
That approach is probably inspired by The Vagina Monologues, which famously mixes humour with harsh reality, and I don't think it works well there either. But this is a play in progress – a 'crash test cabaret' as the programme notes explain – with plans for a full-length version on Valentine's Day 2013. So there's time to decide what works and what doesn't.
By the time the three puppeteers finish with a cheeky song – 'I'm your Ulster lover, here on early release, after 30 years of troubles let me come in peace' – the audience is in meltdown. It isn't sophisticated comedy, though parts of it are clever. But if you want a good laugh at the hypocrisy, the absurdity and the sexual immaturity of this place, The Ulster Kama Sutra is the place to go.
The Ulster Kama Sutra returns to White's Tavern from May 7-11.