FringeReview UK 2024
After four and-a-half years S Asher Gelman’s 2017 Afterglow now directed and choreographed by him, returns to Southwark’s Large.
It’s conquered both sides of the pond. And so typically it’s the Southwark who picked up such fresh, daring work first time round; and have welcomed this flued, sanded revision. We need this.
Directed and choreographed by S Asher Gelman (originally by Tom O’Brien), Set Designer Ann Beyersdorfer, Costume Designer Justin Nardella. Lighting Jamie Roderick with Sound by Alex Mackyol and with Lee Crowley’s Intimacy Direction. Casting Anne Vosser
Production Manager James Anderton, CM Chloe Wilson ASM Amy Blower
Associate Director Stevan Mijailovic, Robbie Simpson (US) and Associate Choreographer Enyx Raye, Press David Burns PR, Marketing Cup of Ambition
Till February 24th
After four and-a-half years S Asher Gelman’s 2017 Afterglow now directed and choreographed by him, returns to Southwark’s Large. It’s one of those plays that storms by stealth, a gay love-triangle whose first triumph among several is to avoid the need for – as its author claims – ‘mention of HIV, coming out, homophobia or even sexual orientation’.
That it’s not the very first such play tells us something about what homophobia buries. Amazingly, Kevin Elyot’s debut Coming Clean (about to be revived at Brighton Little) premiered in 1982, winning a Samuel Beckett Award.
Gelman’s pride here in writing a play that can finally proclaim for instance “If you’re looking for penis, you’ve come to the right place” and not make it a rallying-cry but bare fact – is infectious. Naturally it sold out, extended its run to 14 months and was packed out at Southwark in 2019. Again at Southwark Large it’s packed. As you’d expect: word’s out – gleaming nudity here is the most extensive I’ve ever seen, rivalled only by Jock Nights at the Seven Dials recently.
James Nicholson’s 25-year-old therapy-masseur Darius has joined 30-something husbands Peter McPherson’s theatre director Josh, Victor Hugo’s chemist Alex for a threesome as they explode from the sheets. They found him online. Alex is easy with Josh wanting to dally with Darius, indeed he does a little of that himself. But with Josh and Darius it’s different. Josh is falling for Darius, and Darius has never fallen in love; till now.
Darius’ physical talents naturally extend to being great with his hands, and whilst you can see exploitative possibilities on two older better-qualified professional men visited on the more vulnerable and less well-off Darius, this is only underscored at a crucial phase: when Darius announces he’s returning home to Portland Oregon, because he can’t afford his Manhattan flat. Who of us could at 25?
There’s much nudity and simulated sex early on, fading as more emotional issues grip. Indeed the more clothes, the cooler the sexual temperature and when two men embrace with their clothes on under a shower, there’s an emblematic barrier and fragile accommodation.
With Gelman helming, there’s been subtle rewrites in this 90-minute work, but most of all Gelman choreographs – original choreographer Lee Crowley returns as intimacy director: otherwise the team’s new.
This lends a new fluency, a ballet of intimacy. There’s a stunning slowed-down beauty to the sex scenes aided by Jamie Roderick’s quite exceptional lighting, and a set by Ann Beyersdrofer that’s one of the finest I’ve seen in this space. An unmade bed becomes benches, everything here’s black. Roderick’s lighting surrounds the stage rectangle and again above.
Most significantly, a shower placed downstage centre operates frequently (it’s integral to the play). The cast move these blocks with an added tablecloth and props to render different apartments. Again Roderick’s lighting – now spectral, now full-on, now hazy – also becomes upstage the Manhattan skyline
Sex-shower-scenes are stunning. Nicholson as cute vulnerable yet occasionally volatile Darius has an integrity and single-hearted clarity that stereotypes of young men in his position weren’t given till now, but which is straightforward first love – if after quite a few years of fun. And it’s his dilemma that slowly centres the play when it starts out as a study of the too-complacent couple. “I need to come first place with somebody” rings out like Tennessee Williams slipping in a pun.
Nicholson moves, glides rather round the two (barely) older men. Who are having a baby and – though Josh doesn’t want to know the baby’s sex – share a fruit metaphor for the baby’s size. We start with a lemon and end with a cauliflower.
McPherson’s immature immediacy – particularly when cornered – plays off against his sophistication; McPherson’s demonstrative Josh (he’s with expressive actors all day) wants attention from his returning husband, where the more introverted Alex wants to hold off till he’s ready, putting his difficult chemical research to bed.
Hugo’s cooler exterior gives way to a more resolute adamantine demand. Alex draws lines, Hugo renders him sympathetic. After all he’s fine with an open relationship, but falling in love outside marriage crosses lines. An “experiment” has to be “terminated”.
There’s a tiny reflection – looking on these beautifully-toned actors – about the tragedy of ageing in all relationships and how this might be explored, beyond cruel victories of the young or reminiscent affections of an equally aged couple. It’s another play but this one underscores its absence.
It’s a finely-drawn-down drama, but not about plot so much as exploring a normalising ambivalence: new freedoms and how to take them. Including at one shocking moment an assumption over who’s to be house-husband when the baby arrives.
There’s some nice touches, a quip about the Bible inventing polyamory. But that’s from Darius who like Alex wants Josh for himself, despite himself. Josh’s misfire trotted out: “the heart wants what the heart wants” is beautifully skewered. It’s from Woody Allen on marrying his adopted daughter. Yeah, bin it.
Acting’s hypnotically faultless, with Nicholson’s vulnerable Darius glozed over with young machismo, the man-boy Josh under his carapace of first-night glamour in McPherson’s slow crumble. Hugo’s Alex exudes a pained introverted sincerity, a seething liberal angst he can’t sustain.
In the States many actors once turned this play down, frightened it’d blight their careers. Over here there seems less reluctance. Perhaps there’s battles fought by Gelman and his first team that we’re blasé about.
No matter, it’s conquered both sides of the pond. Typically it’s the Southwark who picked up such fresh, daring work first time round; and have welcomed this flued, sanded revision. Stunning, heartwarming, heartbreaking. We need this.