“I fully understand” says Kenneth Robinson MP, “that this subject is distasteful, even repulsive to some people”. He is introducing the Commons debate on the Wolfenden Report, the decriminalizing of male homosexual acts in private. As Matthew Baldwin – calm, smartly pinstriped, measured – delivers fragments of the speech, you feel across half a century the fraught Parliamentary silence. It is, he says, a misconception that these men are “effete, depraved and exhibitionist…the majority are useful citizens, unnoticed and unsuspected”. Some of his listeners in that Chamber will have recognized Robinson’s definition of their own “Involuntary deviation..[which] leads so often to loneliness, unhappiness and frustration”.
This age of laissez-faire and equal marriage, with its troubling counter-current of fundamentalist repression, seems to fuel a dramatic need to look back at that period when sexual rebellion boiled and seethed, cracking the skin of postwar respectability. We await two treatments of the Profumo Scandal – Keeler the play, Stephen Ward the musical. The Universal Machine musical dealt movingly with Alan Turing, and Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride painfully expresses both the misery and of the criminalized years and the “hypersexual” fallout now gradually fading.
This sensitive, truthful 70-minute solo created by Baldwin and Thomas Hescott (who directs) weaves together Robinson’s speech and the story of a young civil servant whose nervous search for love and intimacy leads him to the flamboyant underworld of the ‘Dilly and to picking up a boy in the Leicester Square Gents. Baldwin gives poignant dignity to the lonely civil servant, from childhood memories of love to the indignity of a courtroom. Sometimes he becomes “Edna” the waspish Jules-and-Sandy type in the club talking Polari to the shrieking Gladyses and Mabels.
Then he is the lover again, pleading with a shrugging, venal, beloved boy; then we are back in the Commons chamber as Robinson questions the right of the State to interfere in the acts of private individuals, and reveals that the Lord Chief Justice finds 90 per cent of blackmail cases involve homosexuality. Public opinion? “It is the duty of governments to lead, and to do what they know to be right”. A faint modern echo of David Cameron’s nervous courage over gay marriage.
Baldwin’s performance is strong, charming and honest, the play cunningly constructed. The 70-minute span begins and ends with him as a modern man, texting about a dinner party he and his civil partner (“we’re thinking of upgrading to marriage”) are having for the even smarter Seb and Ian, all Ottolenghi brunches and opera and mentoring. It is from that moment that we whirl back to the 1960’s, the Parliamentary plea for the “distasteful” deviation, and the cosy, dangerous, necessary underworld of Gladyses and Ednas. For which, it is teasingly made clear, some still atavistically hanker.
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