The image shows the cover illustration for V-Card, credits to Phillip Olney

Funny, fresh and poignant: the deservedly sold out run of Alison Hall’s V-Card came to a close at the Bread and Roses Theatre, Clapham on Monday. Amidst a repertoire of one liners and punchy satire, the Blue Moon Theatre production took an honest look at the concepts of sexuality and self-actualisation that left audiences not just uplifted, but with a profound understanding of what it is to be young and searching for sex and love – or wishing you had never found it.

Before even taking to the stage with what is now its 6th incarnation, ‘V-Card’ has had commendable success as a radio play and has raised around £400 for Galop, a charity that provides aid within the LGBT+ community against sexual and domestic violence. Despite its debut in radio, the play was as visually alive as it was perceptive, approaching themes of consent, relationships, guilt and growth whilst also deconstructing expectations of the genre. This wasn’t just a coming of age tale, nor a story of virginity-loss victory, but an essential recognition of the sexual pressures placed on young people.

The use of only a number of crates and blankets transformed each scene, and the intimacy of the black box studio pulled the audience into a close-to-home depiction of student sex lives, from thinking an eyelash curler is kinky to the self-conscious assessment of your own values (‘forget feminism: this is free stuff!’).

The play centres around Hazel, a 19 year old girl on a reluctant quest to lose her virginity, played with outstanding sensitivity by leading lady Ellie Fullwood. Despite her intrusive religious guilt (manifested as a very passive-aggressive God Himself), Hazel begins her mission with the help (or hindrance) of her hapless friends, Erin, Nick and Dylan, played with raucous wit by Pip Lang, Lorcan Cudlip Cook and Gregor Roach.

Nick can’t name a woman off the top of his head, Dylan is in a band named ‘Smurf Bukkakke’, and Erin “does not fall in love” (which lasts for about twenty minutes…before she predictably does). Their attempts to get Hazel ‘laid’ are as laugh-out-loud funny as they are wittingly agonising to watch. We meet a host of undeniably Oxford-based characters, from ‘Freaky Freddie’: plummy self-proclaimed sadist, to ‘Amazing Alex’: the faux-apologetic intellectual, as well as the effortlessly cool Robin – who I can only describe as a Vintage Manic Pixie Dream Lesbian.

Despite the quippy titles and potential to be gimmicky, these characters were given depth and life thanks to Alison Hall’s intelligent subversion of stereotypes and the outstanding performances of Grace de Souza, Glyn Owen and James Newbery.

Thanks to the proxemics of the staging, as well as the talents of costume designer Iris Bowdler, Hazel’s friends and acquaintances become recognisable as our own, as though we were all sat around swapping sex stories over a pint. Hazel’s awkward moments became ours: every onstage cringe rippled through the audience, every expert facial expression from the ensemble seemed to mirror our own, and there was a sense in the audience that to watch this play was to be recognised.

V-Card was also not afraid to subvert expectations of characters through a combination of bold writing and subtly effective performances. The slimy Freddie turned out to be eminently respectful; the “nice guy” exposed himself as a coercive misogynist, and Hazel’s good friends turn out to be actively hurtful in their endeavours, reinforcing that there is no distinct profile for violation. Hall rejects lazy characterisation, also avoiding the potential manic pixie pitfalls of Robin, who, having spent most of the play as a detached advisor and inevitable love interest, warmly turns Hazel down ‘for now’, allowing her to grow from whimsical romantic object to a complex individual with her own autonomy.

This kind of detailed, positive representation is rare, and it is refreshing to see female sexuality being celebrated and normalised – for example, Erin’s pride in her lovebites (‘I feel like I’ve been mutilated…but like…in a good way’). V-Card manages to simultaneously celebrate sex whilst also debunking society’s obsession with virginity, concluding that sex does not define or change you.

It is also about time we saw young girls onstage, especially within the LGBT+ community, engaging with their sexuality without it becoming a cautionary tale. As Hazel herself points out, ‘there are plenty of girls who stand their ground and end up dismembered’; this is often the case in sex-driven female narratives, with the overplayed character arc from innocent virgin to fallen (aka traumatised) woman. Instead, Hazel’s story was one about establishing one’s own boundaries and standing up for them, and about realising that ‘you’ll piss someone off either way. So you might as well do what you want.’

V-Card’s message speaks to us all. In one way or another, we have all had to have a frank conversation with our own conscience (albeit, not all of us in the form of Lorcan Cudlip Cook dressed as God); we all eventually have to regain control of our lives and cut out the people who take it from us. And maybe we haven’t all slept arse to arse with a stranger who tells us he ‘sometimes wishes he was dead’, but in sharing Hazel’s journey in such close proximity we certainly learnt what it felt like. Alison Hall’s comedy is not just witty and insightful, but rather necessary, and deserves significant praise alongside a charismatic cast for giving a refreshing and gratifying voice to their audience.