“Can I have a ticket for sex offence please?” And later, from the door staff: “You’re here for sex offence?”
I generally steer clear of productions with titles like this, for these reasons, but Andy Paterson is a playwright to keep a stray eye on. His subject is the lurid power of the establishment and things that go bump in the night. If somebody mentions that Dr David Kelly was killed by the security services in a play by Paterson, then it is not meant as a joke. In 2014, he brought the story of Willie MacRae, a Scottish nationalist who was supposedly assassinated by British Intelligence, to the Fringe. At the time I saw and satirised a rival account of MacRae, George Gunn’s “3000 Trees,” but despite my scoffing take, I found Gunn’s play to be enjoyable and exciting. There is the same mixture of foolishness and excitement in “Sex Offence.”
As well as writing “Sex Offence,” Paterson is one of its two performers. The whole play is a single, late-night conversation with repeatedly topped-up drinks. This Noctes Ambrosianae format, one that seems to be palpably anchored in Enlightenment Edinburgh, is given extra weight by the bringing up in the middle of the play of the city’s Deacon Brodie legend. “Sex Offence” is about a leading citizen with secrets and, in the New Town Theatre, Paterson has procured the most redolent of venues for such a story: a Freemason’s Hall in Edinburgh’s New Town. As with RS Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, “Sex Offence” is set in London but it lingers absent-mindedly in Edinburgh. Any tale of daytime reputability and nocturnal sin will always have a home in a city centre that is cut clean in half between the light of the New town and the darkness of the Old.
The Home Secretary Archie Cornwall (Paterson) has just made a speech in the House calling for all convicted child molesters to receive mandatory life sentences. Now he is visited in the small hours by an old flame with the dirt to bring him down. Archie is an image of velvety power and his silken voice is sufficiently modelled upon that of the Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard (1993-1997) to merit a “the characters portrayed are fictional” statement in the programme. This aspect of the production is daring and rather unnecessary. Archie’s character is otherwise turned out by the Francis Urquhart school of power politics. He emits the same reptilian calm as the sinister Chief Whip who was played by Ian Richardson (another Edinburgh actor). You are always watching Archie’s face to see if worry will ever flit briefly across it. With her fake smile and a kind of frank plummy sordidness, Fiona Myles (Rachel Ogilvy) is at times an open impersonation of the downmarket tabloid columnist Katie Hopkins. Yet this has the advantage of letting our guard down, so we might be surprised when she is shown to be not as dim as we anticipate.
“Sex Offence” initially comes with a third dimension because its characters are not merely cynical. Archie is a passionately paternalistic misanthropist who thinks that he is all that stands between civilisation and race rioting. Fiona claims to represent the people against the establishment. Cynicism is nevertheless waiting in the wings. The actual demos are faraway and unreadable.
Paterson’s problem is that his chosen dichotomy of Enlightenment versus darkness is itself prone to lapse into irrationality. He presents a world that is controlled by furtive spooks and corrupt newspaper editors. It is pleasant to tour this world but I don’t, in the end, really believe in it. The acting and clever dialogue supply enough of a meal to take “Sex Offence” a lot further than a website that lists celebrity paedophiles (websites that this play rather naughtily legitimises). But Paterson does not put enough distance between himself and such conspiracy theories to render “Sex Offence” anything other than an inconsequential entertainment.