FringeReview UK 2016
Tom O’Connell Productions, Seabright Productions in association with Jack Maple, Kings’ Head Theatre and Park Theatre – an ATG-hosted consortia – reaches Theatre Royal Brighton. They’re reviving Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play The Boys in the Band. It’s pacily directed by Adam Penford, set and design by Rebecca Brower, lighting design by Jack Weir with a cast including Mark Gatiss.
Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play The Boys in the Band, is revived on an ATG-hosted consortia and reaches Theatre Royal Brighton, pacily directed by Adam Penford, set and design by Rebecca Brower, lighting design by Jack Weir with a cast including Mark Gatiss.
Nearly fifty years old this play hardly feels it even with the turtleneck shirt that marks Gatiss’s character Harold’s snappiness. The set, a period single apartment shines with period suavity; large telephones come as a sharp tender shock.
It’s Harold’s party and Michael, agonized Catholic-educated but out, is hosting it. He has a call from Alan a straight-acting old college crush of his, the content of which we don’t hear but we might find out when Alan turns up for some heartfelt talk: cue the comedy of the gay party acting straight if Alan does arrive.
But it’s not Cage aux Folles and the party spirals as Michael begins drinking again after foreswearing it; and his character, as he predicts, turns the reverse of his ameliorative, peace-making character. For one thing, Harold is his nemesis. For another, Alan has said something to disturb his feelings. For a third, how can you cope with a bare-top kissogram who’s meant to be a Midnight Cowboy but turns up at eight, too early even for his intended target? He’s not bright either, later complaining the cook Emory’s lasagne must be squashed meatballs. Jack Derges’ character has one other talent than the obvious: he can blow smoke-rings; Derges never pulls focus with this flawless etching of an almost mute mannequin.
By then the full company’s assembled: James Holmes’ screamingly funny screaming camp Emory delights and energizes in OTT confrontations. Indeed he’s so repellent to the arriving Alan (in the middle of a particularly whacky conga) he gets punched spectacularly and bloodily on the nose, so his ‘blouse’ has to be changed (Daniel Boys’ ever-reliable Donald who shines early on mischievously suggests a designer sweater of Michael’s). The balance of Holmes’ terror and outrage and the rapprochement between these two agonists is one of the minor felicities of this beautifully-wrought piece. John Hopkins’ Alan is a flaw-cut machismo with a glass jaw whose layers might not quite be what Michael thinks. In developing this, Crowley shows dramatic mastery.
Once Harold arrives, the dynamic shifts. Michael played with a calibrated slump to meanness as alcohol kicks in by Ian Hallard is a revelation of corrosiveness. Hallard’s Michael is moulded to him. He challenges everyone to play a game – inspired perhaps by receiving that earlier call – everyone must phone the person they love and tell them they love them. This of course crosses the boundaries of straight-acting men showing their hands at the least.
Gatiss drawls out his riposte, that he always bests Michael, waspish language havering between exasperated affection and something nearer disgust. He’s almost unrecognizable in his semi-afro wig and more youthful persona, like Michael lamenting a fleeting youth but with less self-pity and a sanguine, amused determination to take what’s on offer.
Larry the promiscuous lover of straight-acting divorced teacher Hank has less to lose than his lover, and the tensions between these two and how they act in this exposing game is a highpoint of the evening. Ben Mansfield’s earthy Larry is nuanced by the nervy ex-straight Hank of Nathan Nolan whose demeanour is mistaken by Alan as the one straight in this Greenwich Village of a room. There’s a frisson too between Emory’s opposite and saviour, the one man who can play lower status than him to make him feel a little better – the sacrificial Bernard. Greg Lockett sculpts a quiet patience on a monument of sneers and racist niggles, whose compassion can still sharply remind his recipients not to take this as a supine given.
Penford’s keen pace enjoys taking in the feline wit and sudden eddy of jaw-drop, but for the most part keeps everything as nimble as the script suggests. The denouement is thrilling, the sudden plotlines coalescing and several flips surprising what we might expect. Gatiss might be the best-known of the ensemble but delights in being just one of this nine-hander which never falters, never droops and dances words to actions in a small masterpiece that seems poised to remain contemporary forever.