Half Moon Theatre, Cork Opera House, Emmet Place, Cork City

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The Year of Magical Wanking review by Joe McNamee

There appears to be a walkout after just a few minutes: a young woman, face set hard, coat on, bag in hand, doesn’t return, presumably, a little overwhelmed by the graphic sexual nature of Neil Watkins’ monologue which begins with him introducing himself as a ‘wanker’. Furthermore, he clarifies immediately and with great gusto that he is referring specifically to his near-crippling - literally and emotionally - chronic masturbation habit. But, save a misreading of the play’s title, what else could she have expected.

The character ‘Neil Watkins’, written and acted by Neil Watkins, is a young gay Dubliner with HIV, marginalised by his very Catholic family following a rather disastrous coming out. Abused as a child, he has a morbid fear of intimacy: he has only ever had one proper boyfriend and in three years they never kissed; otherwise, he immerses himself in an anonymous world of cruising, instant gratification, fleeting, often sado-masochistic encounters. Unsurprisingly, self-loathing Watkins is the masochist. But his greatest sexual pleasure comes from marathon drug-fuelled solitary wanking sessions in front of his laptop, weed to get in the zone, poppers to bring orgiastic pleasure to a ‘crystal’ zenith. Occasionally, in the aftermath of sex with others, his ultimate consummation comes masturbating over the sleeping body beside him. It is a world of animal appetites completely unleashed, deepest horrors explored and given free rein. Watkins numbing himself with multiple permutations of alcohol and drugs to dull a pain he cannot help seeking out in the first place. It is gay sex, unsparing in details of brutal near-rapings and infliction of pain in random global cities but after a while the gay angle is irrelevant, redundant. It is simply about sex and how a fucked-up psyche can lead to very fucked-up sex, gay or straight.

If this all suggests a rather draining experience, it is a tribute to Watkins, particularly as writer, that The Year Of Magical Wanking is actually a charming, very funny and moving play. It is delivered entirely in verse as a series of monologues or dialogues, Watkins playing both parts, either between sex and drug binges, seeking solace from healers or his therapist or wrestling with his demented drag queen alter ego, Heidi Konnt. The verse structure isn’t overly rigid, the language loose, often colloquial, but adds framework to a stripped down production. Sparse electronica links breaks as Watkins, negotiating straight lines on a bare stage, ‘moves’ to the location, physical and emotional, of the next episode. Suicidal, he finds ultimate redemption following an encounter with Amma, the hugging saint. That night, he has a waking vision in which he chooses to live. In that case, he is informed, you must tell your story. In its own quiet way, owning up to this vision is the bravest confession, the ultimate surrendering of ego in what appears to be an entirely autobiographical work.

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