There’s a shortage of authentic depictions of sex workers on screen or on stage. Most portrayals, sympathetic or otherwise, are two-dimensional characters based on certain sets of assumptions. This shortfall extends beyond fiction and into public debates on prostitution, where most of the people doing the talking, whether pro- or anti-, are not those with the first-hand experience.
The team behind ‘Unprotected’, in developing a play which discusses street prostitution and Liverpool’s thwarted attempts to establish a managed zone, interviewed over one thousand stakeholders: sex workers, residents, police, outreach workers, politicians, clients - and most notably, the mothers of Pauline Stephen and Hanane Parry, who were brutally murdered in 2003. What they then came up with is an achievement both compelling and heartbreaking. Its pacing is effective enough for six actors to merge between seventeen different roles without causing confusion; a simple set is sufficient for the show’s purpose and avoids distraction from the matter at hand; projections on a screen at the back of the stage depict the streets of Liverpool.
‘Unprotected’ is a story – several stories - of resilience and struggle, with harrowing accounts of violence and loss. Leanne Best demonstrates toughness and courage as streetwise sex worker Ali, recounting her ordeal at the hands of the man who raped and tortured her for twelve hours: “And they just said if I was a normal woman he would be receiving fifteen years in prison.” The pain of the bereaved mothers is so raw, it’s overwhelming.
But as well as the sorrow, the play gives voice to an anger that carries the play forward. Opening in Edinburgh on the same day that an Aberdeen man received a mere six-year sentence for the murder of sex worker Susan Third, ‘Unprotected’ is just as relevant in Scotland as it is in Liverpool. It’s rare in its accurate representation of a marginalised demographic, and although it can be hard to bear in parts, its true stories deserve to be heard.