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Five Clever Courtesans
Published on Sunday, 09 May 2010

A packed Fringe programme requires a discerning choice of event, if you’re not to miss out on the best that’s on offer. This performance will not disappoint; it’s a combination of excellent writing, confident and talented performance, and food for thought which you’ll savour long after it’s finished. In short, it’s first-class entertainment.

The premise of the play is simple: five courtesans, notable in their own times, are restored to the flesh by Goddess Venus and meet in the demimonde to compare notes of their conquests. At this dream meeting – which might be a response to the classic question, who would you invite from history to sit round your dinner table? – each of the five women takes a turn on centre stage, and tells her individual story.

First, though, the audience has a chance to check them out: on entering the theatre we find the women sitting waiting, backs to us. This is a show worthy of either gazing rapt or peeking at, dependent upon the audience.  They are a visual feast of lace, silk, leather, fishnet tights and corsets; the scene is wholly fitting of their feisty roles.

It’s a clever decision to put their physical attractions on show at the very first, since we’re then ready to give our undivided attention to this surprise of a play.  Thoughtful and carefully-constructed, it helped me look from a completely new angle at women’s roles in history and today.

The context of the women’s meeting gives them a chance to discuss with one another the cunning methods of their successes. Far from the destitution I might associate with prostitutes today, these five have more than the feminine wiles of paramours in common: well, it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. They reveal a common aspiration for a life other than that which they were born into as women, and through fierce ambition have reached the top of the game their era allowed them to play.  Their rewards were jewels, power, and a place in history.

When they discuss how women today take scalpels to their bodies in the name of cosmetic beauty, I wonder whether we in modern times have lost the plot, in comparison to these women who fought for our rightful place using intuition and cunning to succeed. To my mind, their intelligence and strategy eclipses our sinister focus on recreating youthfulness, so often in preference to reaching our potential and growing old gracefully.

Cabinets of Curiosity provide a lavish and sumptuous production. They perform it faultlessly, with bold confidence, and a standard of performance and production surely fitting of a much larger venue. Highly recommended!

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2010.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.