IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT AIDS…
Kevin Elyot’s 1994 play is pretty much perfect: a twist on the traditional drawing-room, single-set comedy of sex, love, friendship and death. Directing, Robert Hastie does it full justice. In two unbroken hours here is a constantly involving, slyly funny and heartbreaking production.
That is the first thing to say, and should precede the standard description of it as a famous play about gay men and an important landmark in writing about the AIDS crisis of the 1990’s. Not that it is a rant against social prejudice: indeed you would hardly know that there was any. A flippant toast “To gross indecency!” carries no implied legal terrors as it would have done before Wolfenden; and when Eric the Brummie barman casually says, pretty unbothered, that his comprehensive wasn’t like the film Another Country – “if you were a poof they threw you in the canal and pissed on you”. Gay rights are not Elyot’s message, unless incidentally through the lovability of the characters. For all their campery, these are just six people in a tangle of friendship and love: only one explicitly fears AIDS, and the two deaths occurring between scenes might almost as well be cancer.
That’s its strength: but of course a “gay” play has advantages over farces and tragedies set in the ‘straight” world. You can complicate your sexual relationships faster than Feydeau if anyone can sleep with anyone (and anyone probably will have had a night, or part thereof, with the unseen Reg). Gay men are also, forgive the stereotype, often gifted at satiric, savage and explicit verbal humour, which rapidly ramps up the comedy. It also helps defuse and pivot the moments of high emotion, and there are many: for sudden male tears and embraces are more natural. Then add to that – especially twenty years away from gay marriage and the domestic normalization of today – the ability to play with some un-British closeness across class barriers: the barman with four CSEs and the public-school toff, the copywriter with the smart flat and the lorry-driver (“though I think he’s really a florist”). It all helps.
But it is not a play of stereotypes and special pleading. It drills into universals: the uses and limits of sex, the blind alley and brief relief of hookups, the yearning for intimacy, the ache of jealousy, Spender’s “grave evening demand for love” . At its heart is a superb performance by Jonathan Broadbent as Guy: tubby, fussy, decent, maternal, frustrated, everybody’s confidant and nobody’s first choice. He is achingly funny and heartbreakingly noble. Julian Ovenden and Geoffrey Streatfield are the glamour-boys whose conquistador pride crumbles into grief and longing; Lewis Reeves the barman, wisest of them all. Outside that circle – though nobody escapes Reg – Richard Cant is funny and sad as Bernie, sinuously lovesick for his nonchalant brutal bus-driver Benny (Matt Bardock, cocksure in every sense).
So, not a “gay play”, cultish and exclusive. Shock, betrayal, the comfort of touch echo in us all. And plenty of conventional spouses might ruefully echo Benny’s observation that sometimes you never realize what a bore your partner is until you’re both out with other people. Brilliant.