“You shouldn’t wear heels when you do chin ups”
Would some people still consider The Boys in The Band a “gay play” and therefore mainly of interest to gay men, in much the same way as Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is mainly of interest to people who have been affected by their family or friends turning into a rhinoceros, or that Ibsen’s Ghosts is best enjoyed after a bout of venereal disease and incest? Hopefully not, because if they counted themselves out of seeing The Boys in The Band for that reason, they would be missing an engrossing, moving and very funny revival.
Petula Clark’s Downtown plays as we enter the auditorium (my personal Petula favourite, Don’t Sleep in the Subway, is saved for the interval music). On the walls before us are illuminated photographs of icons such as Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis and film posters which include Hitchcock’s Rope (based on Patrick Hamilton’s play that was based on the Leopold and Loeb case and parodied in an episode of Psychoville which guest starred Mark Gatiss).
The stylish apartment is being readied to host the 42nd birthday party of Harold. As so often with staged front room social gatherings of friends, this is an event which will lead to relationships unravelling, ravelling back together, amidst further revelations and drunken bouts of honesty.
As the shelled crab is placed in the centre table ready for consumption, host Michael receives a call from his college roommate, Alan, who is apparently unaware of Michael’s sexuality and may well be taken aback by this gathering of gay men. The ability to disguise this reality by sitting with legs wide apart talking about “the game” in low growls is short-lived.
The first act belongs to James Holmes as Emory, who has a delightful, uncontrollable flamboyance, the sort that masks a sense of an unrequited life, but we’ll find out more about that in the second act. Holmes performs slapstick with aplomb, one particular head bump leads to a little corpsing (and debate with my cohort as to whether this was an accident of matinee, or a regular delight). This is not to dismiss this very strong ensemble cast, Emory is the sort of person who would dominate any party…until the fraying begins.
John Hopkins as Alan perfectly conveys the inarticulacy of limb control that happens when pissed. In fact the whole cast play drunk to perfection, so much so that I started to hanker for brandy.
While the first act is predominantly comedy, it is a comedy that we know is concealing something darker and inevitable. The second act descends into that maelstrom that occurs when the alcohol pierces our carefully constructed outward appearances.
This is a play about outsiders when they are inside their world.
It is about the unrequited hopes.
It is about reaching middle age, that time when you are old enough to see the mistakes of your past, but also realise those things that will no longer be available to you as age advances.
It is about trying to elude your reality.
It is about the cruelty we can use to escape ourselves, something that Ian Hallard as Michael excels at to the point of a hideously sad howl, like a Lear in 5th avenue loafers.
It also has some of the wittiest dialogue to use the word “cunt” that I can remember hearing.
The script knows exactly when to pierce the pity with wit, and this cast time it to perfection.
Just as the audience may dawdle into melancholic empathy with Emory, Mark Gatiss’s Harold chips in with, “Well, I for one need an insulin injection”.
This is a play that has pity, but it is not self-pitying.
During moments of verbal cruelty and bullying jousting, members of the Sunday matinee audience I was in let out gasps of horror. Rarely have I been as immersed as I was in the lives of these nine characters.
Written and performed a year before the Stonewall Riots, the near 50 years that have passed since its first production have not turned this tightly written character display into a museum piece.
This is ensemble acting at its finest.
The Boys in the Band is at The Vaudeville in London for a two week run.
Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles is now in its 4th series. Latest episodes include Noel Fielding, Alan Moore, Alice Lowe and Lisa Dwan, and you’ll also find a long chat with Mark Gatiss. they are all HERE.