Her name’s Sally, she’s a confident and earnest woman… and she often has sex with ghosts. What do you mean, you don’t believe her? Just look at the evidence: the succession of men who’ve disappeared from her life, the number of times she’s woken up to an empty bed. There’s just one possible explanation, as Sally points out to us: it can only mean that her vanished lovers were actually never there at all.
Written and performed by Sarah Charsley, the programme says that Ghost Sex started life as a short story – and I’m left suspecting that there’s not quite enough material here to make an hour-long show. It’s rather slow to get started: the opening section is a lengthy litany of unremarkable failed love affairs, when for the purposes of scene-setting just one or two examples would have done. It would work if it were funnier or sadder or more outrageous, but as it is, it comes across as a rather tentative prelude before the main story kicks in.
Once Sally meets Mr Right, however – signalled by a pleasantly incongruous puppet routine involving, of all things, washing-up brushes – the story grows more nuanced, and (for me at least) far more engaging. The origins of her fixation with spirits become suddenly and terribly clear, and her obsession soon develops into a new, disturbing belief. These later scenes are nicely balanced and cleverly portrayed, as we begin to doubt the truth of what we’re seeing and the fundamental realities of Sally’s world.
There are some good, sharp lines throughout, and there are moments when script and performance work beautifully together; I particularly enjoyed the grotesque-but-believable Big Bad John, evoked with bandana and all. But other characters aren’t quite so compelling – there’s more to portraying masculinity than sitting with your legs apart – and the early scenes sometimes felt a little mechanical. Charsley’s performance became more believable and relatable as the tone grew darker, and the difficult transition from comedy to tragedy was navigated very well.
The ending delivers a couple of gut-punches in quick succession, but the emotional impact of the first is diminished a little by the shock of the second. Overall then, there’s some work to be done here if Charsley is to realise the full potential of her story. As it stands however, it’s a solid performance of a memorable tale – which subverts your expectations more than once, and builds to a startling but fitting conclusion.