Review by Lydia Wilcock
Where do we call home? This is a question that for many, finds its answer within the safe four walls of a childhood residence, heaving with photos of school plays, bruised knees and runny noses. But what happens when those moments of nostalgia don’t have the same feeling of security? What happens when we have to reimagine what home is and who home is in order to survive? These are the questions that Maedb Joy negotiates in her new piece Home Sweet Hell, which follows the life of Maia – kicked out of school, taken in by something that feels like love, and forever avoiding that bus back home.
We meet Maia, age 14, bunchies on, chewing gum. She could easily be mistaken for the 14-year-old you were, or the one you tried to avoid. Brash but with an unmistakable softness, we follow Maia’s journey through work and love as she figures out how to pursue her career as a writer. Working in London bars she writes lines on the backs of receipts whilst pouring pints that cost more than her hourly wage. For a while, this bleak reality does not matter as she finds solace in her partner Liam. But when this partner turns out to be only interested in a love with minimum wage’ and not a wage that can be earned through sex work, she has to begin negotiating again where she can find security in a world that offers her little.
Maedb Joy’s writing aptly reveals the difficulty of shifting landscapes and the choices these fluctuations lead us to make. Camming – which, she notes, is more energy-efficient than a 12-hour in a shift in a dank pub – is not heralded as a life-saving decision but one of practicality, that enables Maia to access the future she has trained for. This offers an important contribution to sex work discourse and work discourse more broadly. Sex work can exist as neither empowering nor exploitative, but a necessary choice for many who cannot access other avenues of work. Moreover, work is repositioned as at its core, exploitative, particularly within the service industry that has you selling your smile to punters who stare at your chest – all for £8.91 an hour. There is a discomfort in the realisation that sex work offers Maia more security than home, love and civilian work.
This tension is beautifully examined in Joy’s poem 14 Excuses Why I Can Never Escape Sex Work, where among many pertinent reasons she states that ‘making art alongside minimum-wage work makes [her] feel physically sick’ and that sex work ‘is there for [her] when no one else is’.
It is through this that Joy invites us to sit with the complexity of conversations around guilt and shame that permeate sex work. Instead, she presents the reality of work in all its machinations, cutting through tired conversations on morality, and shifting the lens to questions on poverty and labour.
Yet within the maturity of these propositions we still see moments of teenage Maia peep through with quick-witted lines such as ‘I’m not a bad person, just a bad bitch’, reminding us that at its core, this piece is about a young woman figuring out who she is with the few mechanisms she can trust.
The work switches from a devised conversation between characters to monologues and poems, each bleeding into one another succinctly as if the work converses with itself- a poem providing a punchline for the scene before. It is important to note that much of this writing was born on the backs of receipts, delivered in hurried voice notes and rescued from half-typed sentences during arguments with her partner or the graveyard shift at work. This sense of urgency is present. There is a story that needs to be heard, but how can it be when you don’t have time to share it?
Moreover, the intimate nature of where this work began is crucial. We exist in a time where sex workers are kept at arm’s length, robbed of their humanity, and spoken for and about. Here we see someone enacting their own archive, inviting us into the catalogue of their experience and making no apologies for it. In return it is on us to listen and understand that sex work is like any work: negotiating various degrees of intimacy, ensuring that you are one pay cheque closer to financial security. Home Sweet Hell is a visceral reminder that safety looks different to many, as Joy beautifully examines the fragility of states we deem permanent.