Sex Cells: ‘comedy with big heart’ at The Bear Pit Theatre

Lucinda Toomey and Philip Hickson Sex Cells. Inset: Author, Anna Longaretti, with Olivia Jane Parker, who directs the stage version at The Bear Pit

STRATFORD-BASED Australian director, Olivia Jane Parker, tackles important topics such as motherhood, friendship, love, loss, and gender in Sex Cells, which is on at The Bear Pit Theatre until Saturday (matinee and evening). Here, she talks to Herald arts about the playful side of the play, and how she got into theatre.

Sex Cells is an intriguing title, tell us what it’s about.

It’s a play written by Anna Longaretti, who is an English playwright, and is a bit naughty around the edges, however, it is about motherhood really. It centres on a busy call centre, where four female employees of Aphrodite, a sex toy manufacturer, take telephone orders for Teasey Maids, Titivators and rotating pearl g-strings. Beneath the cheerful customer service and easy banter, these very different women nurse their own desires and disappointments.

The play has a real heart to it; I call it a comedy with a big heart. It has such a heartbeat, it moves me even when actors are reading from the script! It’s about the struggles of motherhood. It’s for everybody who has a mother, so for everybody.

How do you think a play that features sex toys is going to go down in the relatively conservative town of Stratford?!

I think Stratford has a cheeky sense of humour. I saw Habeas Corpus at the Bear Pit and Twelfth Night at the RSC recently, and they both had innuendo that the Stratford audience responded well to.

Sex Cells is not a play I thought I’d be interested in directing, but a good friend of mine, Leslie Reed, had been in Sex Cells when it premiered in Australia in 2016 and she told me about how great it was. It’s centred around four women, all with different lifestyles and at different ages. It appealed to me, and when I heard it was being done at the Bear Pit I put my hand up for everything — I volunteered for the crew, auditioned for a part, but luckily found myself in the director’s seat!

There’s only one male character in the play. What’s it like for him?

The manager, Mr Causeway, is played by Philip Hickson, who is surrounded by actresses and a female director — he loves it really! The male character is strong and intelligent, but also a bit awkward, and he struggles to fit in with the women at times. I love watching the dynamic between these really versatile actors. At times he’s a grown up manager and at other times he’s like an awkward boy, you grow to love him and he draws laughs and sympathy.

You’re from Australia, how did you end up in Stratford?

I adore being in Stratford; I moved here in May of last year. I initially came to do a workshop at the RSC and they twigged that I had directed a show of theirs, A Tender Thing by Ben Power, in Australia. As a result of that they said that if you work for us you can see all the plays and attend all these workshops. I thought ‘how fabulous’.

I was quite taken with the town, it resembles where I’m from, and I did feel, even though it is much more touristy than Adelaide, that I could settle here. I jumped into work right away and have been involved in the Bear Pit for a good year, it fits my needs and wants right now.

How did you get into theatre?

I started out as a singer and I was mentored by Catherine Lambert, who is a jazz singer well-known for Lost in Translation (she’s the redhead — keep an eye out). I was about 18 and someone said to me ‘why don’t you try and do a show without using your voice?’ and I thought that’s a challenge! So I started working in theatre and I just fell in love with it. There are so many more avenues you can go down as a women in theatre than in film. Then Shakespeare came along, as he does. I was involved in the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild and we love Shakespeare because that was what came over on the boats!