SEXY at the Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol

Delivering most of the show in her bra and knickers, Vanessa Kissule is a woman patently comfortable in her own skin, unabashed and proud.  ‘Sisters’ looking for an uppercut to entrenched patriarchy or a poke in the eye for the ‘male gaze’ will find something more nuanced and frustrated.  With issues concerning female identity being at the forefront of our public consciousness at present Vanessa Kissule’s show is nothing if not a thoughtful contribution to the debate from a black perspective.

The approach is personal: driven by that teenage angst which puts sex at the forefront of a young mind (waking and sleeping) the question is, she suggests, which way do you jump when you are a young, intelligent black girl?  Do you go for bookish, sophisticated and respected or sexy, provocative and desirable?  So the conundrum is – respect or adulation? Screen idol or pop-video sexy or something else outside the off-the-shelf models of black female sexuality? What makes this work engaging is that it does not come over as merely polemical, but as something personal and fundamental, as she puts it, a scab she has been picking at since her teens. It’s a socially constructed dichotomy of course, so one, unlike human nature, not beyond our wit to resolve.

Sexy is a multi-media show with some well-chosen film clips, screen goddesses in the main (Monroe, Mae West et al.) but with some uncomfortable glances back to not so distant past attitudes. Lobbing a small hand grenade about sex or race into the arena, she smiles a knowing smile, which wickedly, morphs into a winning smile. Thus her method is revealed: astute observation and charm. Not a vacuous, superficial charm, but one that announces a rich personality.

Miming to the voices of some interviewees, Ms Kissule has that ability to let the recorded voice transform her personality. Her demeanour changes and her body articulates the new personality as if the sound has permeated her skin and reset something vital.  The language she uses is flexible and appropriate. The prose style is colourful, earthy and direct, capturing clearly the changes in mood and tone that has allowed director, Rob Watt, to fashion a show, which if loose in structure, has nonetheless a satisfying flow.

Sexy is a one-woman show that is part social stand-up, part autobiography. It is provocative without alienating and always articulate, funny, poignant, perplexed and angry. If talent has any currency Ms Kissule will be amongst us for some time to come.    ★★★★☆   Graham Wyles   14th February 2018