It’s a fruit salad orgy!

Priscilla Douiehy in 44 Sex Acts In One Week. Image: supplied

A radio play on stage – and then some. David Finnigan’s 44 Sex Acts in One Week is insightful, witty, probing and a little bit messy. Priscilla Douiehy spoke with the Sentinel about reprising her role and simulating sex with fruit. 

The promotional images and blurb might lead you to believe this is a bawdy, mischievous romp through a grocery aisle, but Douiehy asserts there’s more to this play than meets the eye – even if what meets the eye is a grapefruit pip. 

“In their words, it’s a post-apocalyptic rom-com.  I’d say to people it’s about sex and climate change,” says Douiehy, trying her best to define Finnigan’s deceptively complex play. 

The premise is relatively simple. Celina, a journalist who wants to be taken seriously, is meanwhile writing vacuous slush for a lifestyle blog. She is given an unenviably assignment with an unrealistic deadline: review a new book called The 44 Sex Acts that will Change Your Life and be authentic about it. That means performing each of the acts in the book and determining whether the claim in the title is true. 

Director, Sheridan Harbridge (left) and Priscilla Douiehy during rehearsal for 44 Sex Acts In One Week. Image: supplied

With no love interests currently in her orbit, Celina is forced to resort to the hitherto inconceivable option of performing forty-plus varied sexual acts with her objectionable work colleague, Alab Delusa.

The sex acts aren’t simulated on stage, at least, not literally; they are conjured in the mind through the use of sound effects, a technique known as Foley. 

“So the comedy comes from a kind of physical comedy of trying to make Foley sounds – badly!” laughs Douiehy. 

It’s inherently funny watching people bang, blow, rub, squeeze various objects to imitate everyday sounds (think radio plays and cartoons). When those sounds are the squishing, panting, slapping noises of sex (often exaggerated in porn films) then the comic effect is multiplied. 

However, the humour is offset by a deeper level of philosophical analysis. Douiehy describes the play as a reflection of the status quo: millennial aspiration versus establishment power; primal instincts versus contrivance. It’s five people on stage trying to restore natural order. 

When 44 Sex Acts in One Week was first performed at Belvoir, there was a fair bit of improvisation, but Douiehy says this version has been tightened with more adherence to the script.

“David Finnigan is so good at writing different characters that sound completely different, and all you have to say is one of his lines to get a laugh from the audience. It’s so well written that, honestly, there’s no ad lib needed,” she explains. 

The rules are loosened for the sex scenes, and when you’re improvising an orgy using fruit, it’s pretty hard to remain composed, says Douiehy. 

She plays two different characters – one male identifying and one female identifying. 

(Clockwise from top left) Rebecca Massey, Keith Robinson, Matt Hardie, Priscilla Douiehy. Image: supplied

“And that duality for me is how I live my daily life, so it was quite fitting.” Douiehy’s male character is a Lebanese man called Kalil.

“This is my opportunity to be the Lebanese man I’ve always wanted to be […] Like, everything I wanted to occupy in that kind of world I was able to as Kalil, and it gives me great joy to do it.”

In terms of set, production elements and even costumes, the play is quite minimal, so Douiehy indicates gender through exaggerated mannerisms, stance, and voice.

The rest of the cast includes an impressive list of names: Rebecca Massey (Belvoir’s Dance Nation and STC’s Chimerica) as producer and performer; Keith Robinson (Belvoir’s The Cherry Orchard and Twelfth Night); Emma Harvie (Belvoir’s My Brilliant Career, STC’s The Harp in the South); and Matt Hardie (TV’s Legally Brown, Rake, The Checkout). The intuitive and multi-talented, Sheridan Harbridge, who also performed in the Belvoir production, is directing. 

Despite the subject matter, the play is not infantile or vulgar; it’s intelligent and witty, and the fruit provides a safe buffer for the squeamish. 

“You know how you can’t really watch a sex scene with your parents there, like, it’s awkward,” says Douiehy. “But when it’s fruit bashing itself, it’s fine. No one’s embarrassed. Everyone’s laughing.”

44 Sex Acts in One Week plays the York Theatre, Seymour Centre, cnr City Rd & Cleveland St Chippendale, from January 12 – 16, 2022, as part of Sydney Festival.  For tickets and further info, visit: https://www.sydneyfestival.org.au/events/44-sex-acts-in-one-week

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.