FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Tom O’Brien, lit by David Howe with sound by Joel Price and with Lee Crowley’s movement direction. Maeve Diamond’s voice-coach, and assistant director Steven Kunis and assistant designer Beth Colley.
S Asher Gelman’s Afterglow is 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’.
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. Over here at the Southwark Large it’s packed. As you’d expect: word’s out – nudity here is the most extensive I’ve ever seen.
Jesse Fox’s 25-year-old therapy-masseur Darius has joined 30-something husbands Sean Hart’s theatre director Josh Danny Mahoney’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.
The sex-shower-scenes are stunningly staged. Fox as the cute vulnerable yet occasionally volatile Darius has an integrity and single-hearted clarity that stereotypes of young men in his position aren’t given, 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.
Fox 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.
Hart’s immature immediacy – particularly when cornered – plays off against his sophistication; Hart’s demonstrative Josh 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. Mahoney’s cooler exterior, gives way to a more resolute adamantine demand. Alex draws lines, Mahoney renders him sympathetic. After all he’s fine with an open relationship, but falling in love outside marriage crosses lines.
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.
Directed by Tom O’Brien on the Southwark Large’s thrust stage, Afterglow features a multi-purpose set of turquoise sofas which at the outset underpin a large unmade bed which erupts in a flurry of bedclothes. The backdrop’s a two-door stage wall centred by a window through which characters on occasion climb; it’s occluded like a Japanese lampshade. The striking feature’s a shower, under which naked figures have sex, stand stark or even clothed. It’s lit by David Howe unobtrusively apart from strobe-lighting in non-verbal interludes, and eclipse-lit in shower scenes. Sound’s by Joel Price featuring pumping club beat, with Lee Crowley’s taut movement direction. Maeve Diamond’s voice-coach catches Manhattan and one character’s still aspiring to it. Assistant director Steven Kunis and assistant designer Beth Colley are involved in this production.
It’s a finely-drawn-down play, with a clear narrative and perhaps inevitable conclusion, but it’s 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. The 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 Fox’s vulnerable Darius glozed over with young machismo, the man-boy Josh under his carapace of first-night glamour in Hart’s slow crumble. Mahoney’s Alex exudes a pained introverted sincerity, a seething liberal angst he can’t sustain.
In the States many actors 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. And so typically it’s the Southwark who pick up such fresh, daring work. We need this.