The Boys in the Band, Park Theatre, London — assessment

It is shocking that this was shocking just a few decades ago basically simply because of its topic matter. In 1968, the year ahead of Stonewall, Mart Crowley filled a stage with openly gay characters — a ground-producing moment. Adam Penford’s revival is, then, in element, a reminder of an age when that act alone was radical. But what emerges now, with the shock worth removed, is the drama’s enduring insight into the deep psychological damage done by homophobia. It is worth reflecting that there are nevertheless no openly homosexual footballers in the English Premier League.

In the safety of his New York apartment, Michael is hosting a birthday celebration for Harold: a likelihood for a group of gay pals to get collectively. But this safe cocoon is threatened by the unexpected arrival of his old college buddy, who is both straight and strait-laced. Michael’s determined efforts to disguise the nature of the guests to the dinner-jacketed gate-crasher produce a lot of slapstick comedy. But beneath all this, there is a dark lagoon of painful emotions. Ultimately they break via: first in a physical attack and then, as the night wears on, in a cruel parlour game.

Mark Gatiss and Jack Derges © Darren Bell

Harold (played by Mark Gatiss with waspish brilliance and professional timing) may possibly be the supposed centre of interest but the genuine concentrate of the play is Michael, whose brittle one particular-liners and sharp put-downs mask a corrosive self-loathing that at some point pours out. Ian Hallard doesn’t hold back on the sheer nastiness of his character’s game-playing, but he also gradually reveals the damage that drives it: the internalisation of a lifetime of guilt, fear and secrecy.

What hasn’t lasted so effectively is the play’s structure. The scene-setting opening is extended and somewhat clunky and there are some terribly unconvincing telephone calls and awkward plot twists. Meanwhile the understandable selection to have a kaleidoscopic range of gay characters in order to represent the various struggles within the neighborhood now appears a bit contrived.

Penford’s staging doesn’t overcome these issues, but it does consist of some superb laugh-out-loud moments (a joyous dance routine, for instance) and brings a actual shiver to the violence, both physical and psychological. And it brings out the emotional truths in the drama. The final celebration game, in which Michael forces every single man to telephone the person he loves and tell them so, is painful, poignant and beautifully delivered: not least by Greg Lockett, James Holmes and Ben Mansfield.

To October 30, parktheatre.co.uk

Section: Arts

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