CW: drugs, sex work

Walking into the Burton Taylor Studio, discarded needles lay strewn across the floor, along with innumerable (still wrapped and luckily yet unused) condoms, various items of clothing, and two of the four actors who form the cast of Hoof and Horn’s production of Lou Lou Curry’s original play Hustlers. Set in bleak 1980s LA, Hustlers faces head-on the trials of life on the ‘streets’ as a sex worker: embroiled in a toxic pimping ring, utterly dependent on drugs, and trapped in a perpetual struggle between deep despair and numbness.

The play opens with an abstract physical theatre sequence, carefully choreographed movements set to a relentless beat. As the movements became increasingly manic, we begin to see character emerge; Harlow (Lou Lou Curry) applies makeup with a doll’s stilted rapidity and James’ frantic, tick-like gestures increase in frequency, repeating over and over. These are the eerie, empty movements of people who are shells; people beaten down by a repressive system we are yet to learn about. The play is staged in-the-round, and this is used to the actors’ advantage; eye contact only increases the scene’s eeriness, while forcing the audience to engage, recognising that these depictions are not just characters, but people.

It is only when the music ends, and there is a brief pause of silence, that we are reminded of the madness. A shadow is cast not only in tone but literally upon the entrance of Tony (Nichita Matei), silhouetted and silent offstage but with an undeniable presence. During his first monologue, Matei’s performance was elevated by interactions with the admittedly small audience, as if he too were about to watch the lives of these characters crumble as a spectator. His vocal and physical mannerisms were well-timed, and what seemed to be the frantic movement from one thought to the next worked well with a character so ostensibly volatile, though words were occasionally lost in such a quick delivery. Direction in this relatively small space was effective, each character making idiosyncratically effective use of it; the unrestrained masculine ego of the pimp had Tony utilising every corner of the space, whereas James (Megan Ruppel) was often lower down, closer to the audience, and closer to the all-important drugs. It was a shame that this extent of audience interaction did not continue, given the opportunities afforded by such an intimate setting. The dangers of such a small, bare set revealed itself in scene transitions, during which long stretches of black-out and silence did not distract from the slightly stilted entrances and exits through a side door. If the whole play continued with the fluidity achieved by the actors at the beginning, it would have reduced the risk of the audience’s attention drifting between scenes, focusing on the technical transitions rather than the contents of the previous scene.

As for the rest of the cast, Ruppel’s James is the image of jaded despair, while Lou Lou Curry’s Harlow plays off this numbness with refreshing, though frustrated, vitality. However, the piquancy of certain remarks sometimes lose their way in such long stretches of sincerity matched so closely with more light conversation, and we are hurtled without warning into a dark place that dizzies and confuses. Perhaps this was the intention of Curry, who was not only an actor but also the playwright and assistant director; however, I would have appreciated further dwelling on such astute lines as “you feel empty and confuse it with feeling nothing”: a universal truth for the whole play that pervades every scene. That aside, Curry and Ruppel have a playful dynamic that successfully isolates Amelia Holt’s Clarity, whose innocent obliviousness is muddied by her involvement in the industry. Holt’s haunting acapella singing coupled with slow and deliberate meandering around the space offered a refreshing amount of promised clarity amidst otherwise frantic, explosive movement.

Condom wrappers crinkling underfoot throughout, James introduces into the play’s further struggle, revealing his character as deeply embroiled in a crisis of gender and identity. Ruppel is captivatingly raw and visceral; her performance benefits from being unafraid to sustain eye-contact with the audience that renders us complicit in the struggles James faces. His unbridled woe leaves us feeling guilty and accountable, a feeling that continues long after the end of the play. The technical addition of a buzzing sound around the space as he shoots up plummets us, with him, into a disorientating dream-like (or rather, nightmarish) world from which none can escape, and a blue light that recurs throughout casts eerie shadows over James as he descends.

Though aided immeasurably by Ruppel’s performance, it is at this part of the play that the subject matter seems to become too large for only an hour and four characters with which to explore it. Curry’s monologue (as Harlow) bites off more than it can chew; the world’s myriad problems are lumped together to the effect of trivialising the individual human struggle that the play depicts. These caricatures almost lose their place as the focal points of despair as the scope begins to extend further than could be executed in such a short space of time. In a passing mention of the problems of modern “decadence”, we are made painfully aware of the irony of who is writing about whom; it is unclear how much research Curry has done into the reality of these situations, as all four characters verge on clichéd depictions of what we, entirely separate from such experience as Oxford students, would think of as a pimp-sex worker relationship. It is hard to submit to the verisimilitude of the writing when, as Clarity even references herself, it is “not the time for one of [Harlow’s] philosophical tangents”. The characters’ eloquent philosophy seems anachronistic and somewhat grotesque in a setting that demands no glamorisation, and in some ways, development of character suffered for this addition of a grand crisis of existentialism. Though the play is presented as a dangerous microcosm for the perilous streets of LA, the vicious tirade against “corporations” and the fallacy of the American dream threatens to rob us of the raw, individualised humanity as depicted in all four characters.

This production from Hoof and Horn is undeniably thought-provoking, both during and after the performance. It was interesting to explore the underbelly of a city and lifestyle that, long captivated by an elusive LA noir glamour, has a caustic and fatal underbelly of destruction, oppression and fear. Though some well-intentioned social criticism may have been lost along the way, Curry’s writing nevertheless illuminates the realities of this dystopia that, though presented as a bad dream, is all too real.