Mother Clap's Molly House

What's come over the place? I head out for my first taste of London theatre in a while, sit all decorous in the stalls of the National Theatre, and find I'm getting a hard-on.

Is it noticeable? Does it smell?

It takes me back to age 14, my Fridays at an all-boys school where me and the class wore our one-piece overalls as the uniform of our combined cadet force. I find overalls a turn-on, and their loose-fitting nature let my erections ride. On a family holiday in Tangiers I once watched two trim young German brothers run around the poolside, their erections blazing through their tight red swimtrunks. I admired the sight and their shamelessness. Me, I felt shame.

It's a gay thing. A British thing. Clearly, if this theatre evening is anything to go by, its a dead thing, as relevant to the 21st century as Mick Jagger. Nicole Kidman strips off at the Donmar to get straight (presumably!) theatre critics drooling over 'theatrical Viagra' so I guess hard-ons have been sprouting in the aisles for generations. It's just kind of passed me by.

Now the gay world's doing it. The play's the last night of Mark Ravenhill's Mother Clap's Molly House. A woman inherits a costume rental business in 18th century London, specializing in renting out dresses to whores. It turns out men make for better business. They hire the dresses, raise their skirts, chink shillings into the busineswoman's purse and find she's happy to treat her premises as a gay brothel.

Subtle it ain't. The show comes with chorus songs. Glitter falls on the Act One finale as the gowned men sing "Shit on those who call it sodomy; We call it Fabulous" ... and the audience whoops with delight. Me, I'm amused and a touch embarrassed. Embarrassed for the in-your-face obviousness of it all. But for the content, this is the land of school revues and old-fashioned English pantomime. So what do I want instead? Things fey, gay fuckability hidden in undertones and inuendo? I've got to forget embarrassment. This play's a wake-up call.

The second half bounces between the centuries. We're in the Molly House, and also bang up to date at a gay orgy. (I can see I've got to update my own language ... 'gay orgy' sounds old!) An old sofa's now become antique, its springs tested as two actors strip off for some frenetic buggery. One of them pauses mid-act to strike a pose for a bald queen's camera, and you have to laugh. You laugh again as the centuries whirl back and a young man lifts his skirts and squeals like a sow to please the pig man who's taking him from behind. These scenes go to the limit of outrageousness, like it's the sound barrier, and burst through the other side with a roar of triumph. And for me at least (and clearly a high percentage of the audience) the merry round of young men coupling is sexy, it is a turn-on.

And the women? We're in the realm of the outrageous again. The pretty new whore who comes to town in the first half is one of the funniest characters I've seen. Sex is taken for granted in the country. In the city she's a commodity, her hymen's worth 20 guineas, she's almost wetting herself with the excitement of it all. Her body's become a weapon anmd she's in control. So what happens to her? She becomes pregnant, screws up her own attempt at abortion, and becomes a 'male' servant in the Molly House (the principle boy figure in English panto stripped of its hetero glamour). The same actress reprises her role in the 21st Century section, blood once more streaming down her legs, the effect of piercing her labia. Her unabashed crudity is funny .. but sad. These women's wounds are self-inflicted, but once again they're victims in a play by a male writer, albeit a gay one.

So this is not a play of political correctness (and condoms never rear their heads at all, the contemporary scenes are a fantasy from the pre-Aids era). The song and dance en