Second in a row of our series of plays featuring a splendid central performance by an actor as a blisteringly vile gay in a period drama at a north London fringe theatre.
Amazingly first time at the Park Theatre for Phil. And first time for The Boys In The Band too. No, Phil had never seen William (director of The French Connection and The Exorcist and once married to Lesley-Anne Down) Friedkin‘s 1970 film either. Andrew had. So when Phil suggested a trip to Mart Crowley‘s 1968 play Andrew replied, “I’m up for an evening of self-loathing”.
But Andrew appeared perfectly happy. The sixties classics filling the auditorium (“To Sir, With Love” etc) before the show might have easily have been his own playlist and while Phil checked his watch tetchily Andrew was perfectly content that the play started late let alone at all. Though this allowed Phil to admire the images of posters of some of his favourite movies (All About Eve, Rope, Sunset Boulevard, Mildred Pierce) and the film stars (Davis, Garland etc) adorning Rebecca Brower’s set, suggesting he might relate to the proceedings we were about to witness.
Alcoholic-in-temporary-remission Michael (Ian Hallard), is holding a gathering for a group of friends to celebrate the birthday of Harold aided by his regular Saturday night partner Donald (Daniel Boys). When the guests eventually arrive things kick off, sparks fly, waspish remarks abound, a fabulously entertaining dance is performed and a strange why-on-earth-would-they-play-it? game is facilitated as events take a nasty turn.
There’s Hank (Nathan Nolan), soon to divorce his wife, and his photographer partner Larry (Ben Mansfield), amiable Bernard (Greg Lockett) and the allegedly straight Alan (John Hopkins) who appears averse to gays, wasn’t expected to drop in, but arrives unexpectedly at just the right moment; dramatically speaking that is. Then there’s interior designer Emory (James Holmes, terrific) who swishes about hilariously, gets the best line of the evening, has planned a very practical gift (Jack Derges) for Harold and struggles with pronouns (hes become shes). Normally we’d eschew such excessive camp but in the context of this period piece it’s perfectly acceptable especially since we eventually see something resembling a soul beneath his flamboyance. He also brings a tray of lasagne which clearly contains less mince than his walk.
Harold (Mark Gatiss) shows up just before the interval, just as the guests have turned to violence. He’s sporting a necessarily hideous, dictated-by-the-script, hairdo. Hats off to wig-meister Richard Mawbey, though Harold might have looked better under a hat.
The play’s iconic reputation goes before it. It must have been shocking in its day, though would they have said the “C” and “F” words on stage then? And since we’re in Manhattan why do they refer to “the loo”? Yes, Phil was shocked. Shocked by the sixties sartorial choices taken by some of the characters which are more Mad Boys than Mad Men. And shocked that a gay man would cook a lasagne for nine men smaller than the amount that Phil would serve for four. Let’s not even start on the handful of crab claws offered as hors d’oeuvres since the guests don’t start on them either.
And there’s steam coming off the food. And they eat it. This was one of the best displays of food-on-stage in a long time. That’s if Phil could forget about the size of the portions. Does that make Phil a size queen?
We didn’t quite understand the title which we assume to be a euphemism that’s lost to the mists of time. Crowley (who is still alive and later went on to become producer of TV’s Hart to Hart), was employed by Natalie Wood (they met on the set of Splendor in the Grass) mainly to give him time to write this play. At least they resisted calling it Boys in the Boys.
Apart from the first 20 minutes which are rather creaky, Adam Penford‘s production is an interesting curiosity, less of a museum piece and much more hilarious and entertaining than Phil could have possibly expected, and played convincingly by the excellent cast. Yes, it’s bleak and the expected bitterness and self-loathing was all there, but some of it still relates to today. Though it would have been impossible, back in the pre-Stonewall days of 1968, to imagine how anyone, let alone a well-known actor, could be openly gay. Hallard is Mrs Gatiss in real life. Even Phil’s having problems with his nouns now.
James McAvoy, Liza Tarbuck and the very much Whinger-approved Beverley Klein were all in the audience too.