Brighton Fringe 2019
David Rees’ 1982 novel The Milkman’s On His Way is dramatized by Kevin Kelly. Directed by Tim McArthur for K-Squared Productions at the Old Courtroom, Amy Mitchell’s costume and design features moveable lit cubes. They’re festooned with The Sun and other homophobic headlines sneakily subverted by internal lighting that glows, turning into gay disco props. Vittorio Verta’s lighting helps too. Clothes are neatly in period. Till May 12th.
‘It will get better’, the great tag-line from David Rees’ 1982 novel inspired a charity (It Gets Better) and they collect at the end of this heart-warming dramatization by Kevin Kelly of The Milkman’s On His Way.
Directed by Tim McArthur for K-Squared Productions at the Old Courtroom, Amy Mitchell’s costume and ingenious design features moveable lit cubes. They’re festooned with The Sun and other homophobic headlines sneakily subverted by internal lighting that glows, turning into gay disco props. It’s a super-flexible set solution and polemic in one, perfect for the limited stage space. Vittorio Verta’s lighting helps too. Clothes are neatly in period.
Still the great growing up gay novel though nearly 40 years old, it’s a surprise to learn the prize-winning author for young adults wasn’t from his protagonist’s generation (he was 56). His empathy and feel for the times though beautifully transposes into this book-and-soundtrack adaptation, balletic storytelling with a theatrical zest that has its seven-strong cast bopping off moveable boxes filled with light.
Oh and projections of Margaret Thatcher damning gay permissiveness, feeding on the furore of the book in the 1980s, framing the infamous Clause 28 banning the ‘promotion of homosexuality’. Many local councils and bodies though adopted the opposite after encountering Rees’ novel, framing gay-positive policies for the first time.
So why is it we start on piled cubes with Bryan Moriarty’s Ewan Macrae teetering over the top, in fact ready to jump off Cornish cliffs at 17, his whole life before him, or accelerated to just six seconds of it below? And the cast including his parents screaming abuse: ‘I wish you’d never been born’ (Claire Calverley’s Mum, Martin Teall’s Dad) and other baying memories as a community wills him to die. That’s what it feels like growing up gay in 1980. For many it still does. It’s worth quoting Rees seminal statement, still pretty definitive:
‘Growing up gay, beginning as a teenager, to realize what you are: that’s when you start to suffer. Just when everyone else is becoming involved with the opposite sex, you’re alone in having to hide your feelings. Impossible to talk to anybody. It’s not something you want to blurt out to your parents, obviously. Or to your teachers, Or to the boy you fancy: He’d jeer at you or hit you. The only salvation is to find people like yourself. And that’s a big step. A very big step.’
We start in 1979 in the small Cornish town of Bude, when Ewan begins to realize that wanking off his best mate Leslie (Robert Hook) means more to him than it does to Leslie, and far more than trying anything with his warm, patient and ultimately empathic girlfriend Louise (Lucy Penrose). Leslie despite his slight blankness to aspects of his own sexuality adores women and after various run-ins and discussions Ewan makes a wrong move.
What’s so galling is that laddish Sun-reading milkman Dad is happy for him to describe sexual details with Louise, though cautioning care (no need) and shows him Page 3, though of course he’s faithful. Mum enjoys her 40th, Louise arriving as a surprise is getting not a little frustrated. It’s only when they finally talk that Ewan realizes he has a real friend in Louise, though she goes off to explore her own sexuality with one Martin and then – well that’s a circular story.
Ewan discovers teacher Paul from London (the more assertive of David McNair’s two roles), who initiates him – another great sex scene, the one that got Dame Jill Knight all red hot and bothered. But Paul’s off. And his parents discover his diaries. Cliff-edge. But it’s Leslie who brings him down. Leslie’s back from London. A lot kinder. Idea?
Sticking up for shy fellow swimming-club attendant Robin (McNair’s other role), Ewan soon moves in with him, though Lewis Brown’s James a black PhD student of theoretical physics problematizes things: they’re on-off and after a powerfully mutual attraction between Ewan and James, Ewan moves on. But two chance meetings change things: with James, Robin moving to Sydney; and with hod-carrier Leslie – a lovely scene all swaying on the tube. He’s now with Louise, who’s given up waitressing and secretary work and is in her second year at Cambridge looking to move into publishing. Why don’t they…? Do find out.
There’s much that’s so affirmative in this dramatized novel, almost impossible things coming to pass, that to suspend a tiny bit of disbelief is mandatory, indeed essential. We need stories like these and they do sometimes happen. Extraordinary reunions and co-habitations, and a few things more you’ll have to see for yourself.
Moriarty’s Ewan is no pushover, as Louise and Leslie note, coming to London has transformed this champion surfer and introvert into someone who exudes confidence, wholly at home with his sexuality. Moriarty’s authoritative, alert, touching each nuance of Ewan’s predicament – and joy.
Brown as suave intellectual commands admiration and easily inhabits his role of glamorous authority. McNair netly counterpoints sexually confident Paul with introverted Robin, and Hook’s Leslie combines the right degree of slightly troubled laddishness and maturing sympathy (though as Louse points out, Ewan’s now the grown-up). Calverley and Teall inhabit their paradigms with grace and some precision (voice particularly, anxiety to mutual warmth to outrage) and bop as part of the gay scene ensemble then flip back neatly. It’s Penrose though who packs the great surprise.
We’ve been enjoying a soundtrack from Madness (‘This House’) Communards (‘Don’t Leave me This Way’), Erasure (‘Oh, L’Amour’), Stranglers (‘Always the Sun’), Wham (‘Club Tropicana’), Dead or Alive (‘You spin me round’), Lauper (Girls just…) and Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’. That’s of course soundtrack. What we don’t expect is Penrose singing ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ from where the title comes, so powerfully and idiomatically. It’s an absolute treat, and her performance elsewhere from sexual come-on to empathic friend to wise counselor is exemplary too.
A couple of other songs Bananarama’s ‘Nathan Jones’ and ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ (Oakey/Moroder) might have been cut because of a late start. But we have Penrose’s memorable singing voice to bring this joyous production to a close.
As a storytelling adaptation it couldn’t be bettered. As theatre per se it necessarily lacks very much conflict and I confess to missing a touch more dark that haunts this work too. But as musical theatre it enjoys more content than most – where its original indeed ground-breaking material is both dateless and specific. It’s an essential work: necessary and uplifting.
I sometimes wonder if Rees’ own story might make for a truly gripping drama, invoked in his late autobiography. More troubled, joyous and tragic by turns, it might have almost as much to teach us. Rees himself would have turned 83 on the 8th May, had not AIDS claimed him in 1993. But till then it had got better after this Cambridge-educated Exeter lecturer and married father come out at 37, which is when not coincidentally his prolific writing career began. For now though and for a very long time, this is a must-see.