QUEER ON CAMPUS, THE 21c BLUES
Welcome to our college! Meet the students, America’s future. Or, as depicted in Christopher Shinn’s new play, a selection of the most sexually rampant, morally confused, smartphone-addicted and emotionally immature, so that as Matthew Marsh’s fed-up college President observes, “These kids are f—ing infants!”.
They also variously tend to suffer from a touching belief that the answer is tequila shots, random blow-jobs in the car park, opting for 20c literature because “the books are shorter so there’s more time to look at porn” and outbreaks of intense student politics by committee, campus journalism or loudhailer. Ah, college days! It’s Catcher in the Rye for Generation Porn.
But although Shinn’s characterization veers towards caricature at times, none of these poor kids deserves to be made more miserable than they naturally make themselves, and the inspiration of the play was serious: several suicides in US colleges, notably that of Tyler Clementi whose gay encounter in his college dorm was secretly filmed on a webcam and put online by his nasty git of a roommate.
Here, the victim of a parallel intrusion is Teddy Ferrara, played with inspired runty, weirdo geekiness by Ryan McParland. He spends a lot of time – before the real filmed encounter – assuaging his frustration by unzipping his flies and going for it on exhibitionist chatrooms. Meanwhile, ambitious Gabe (Luke Newberry) is running the LGBTQ group to |”create a community outside of partying”, and is touchingly in love with Drew ( a dark, intense Oliver Johnstone) who runs the news-sheet and is doing a splash claiming that last year’s suicide was secretly gay, so it’s not just a youthful tragedy but a political issue about the college being “deadly” to the diverse.
This is the belief of the ferocious lecturer Ellen (Pamela Nomvete, a sort of Diane Abbott on speed) and campaigners like transgender Jaq and disabled Jay. The campus, to them is rife with “heteronormative micro-aggressions”, which in English means that gay, lesbian, transgender or gender-fluid students – even when not actually bullied – are repeatedly upset by indications that they are in a minority. The body renames itself the Social Justice Committee because the word diversity is “too ocular”, and demands a “safe” syllabus free of anything which might upset anyone ever (some universities are getting to this point in Britain, so stop giggling). They want an extra set of gender-neutral lavatories throughout campus because transgender or variant students feel “unsafe in binary spaces”.
There’s a lot about that word “safe”: it adds to the general sense that decent, reasonable tolerance can shade into voluntary infantilism and victimhood. ln the funniest scene of an earnest evening, the College President tries to lead a meeting about it and digs himself helplessly into a hole. Marsh does it superbly: but while in the US the character was seen as satirical, the awful thing is that the middle-aged UK heart rather warms to the poor devil.
The plot is driven by emotion ,sexual energy and constant texting. Gabe is friendly with the big, straight, handsome Tim – Nathan Wiley, gleaming with dumbo-jock health. So Drew is jealous. He is desired by Nicky, his chief reporter (Kadiff Kirwan) who when the real lovers break up, chases Gabe, while Drew gets straight Tim to unbutton. There’s a demo in memory of Teddy, who dramatically bows out at the end of Act 1 (Dominic Cooke’s direction melds in Donmar-classy style with Hildegarde Bechtler’s bleak EveryCollege set).
The cast skilfully balance touching pained youthfulness and infuriating daftness, with Newberry in particular growing through the play. And the closing moments, with a disingenuous canonization of Teddy, throw a bracing gloss of cynicism over the whole farrago. But there are limits to how much time you can spend with self-absorbed nitwits, and Mr Cooke is wise to keep it half an hour brisker than it ran in Chicago.
box office 0844 871 7624 to 5 December
Supported by the John Browne Charitable Trust, I & C Sellars and Kathleen J Yoh, with Principal Sponsor Barclays.