Pros: Interesting concept, relevant themes, lively sixties aesthetic.
Cons: Dated comedy, inconsistent tone, rushed delivery.
There’s something inherently satisfying about a story that offers up a totally absurd premise and then dutifully follows it to a logical conclusion. This revival of Spitting Image, at the King’s Head Theatre, does just that. The play concerns Tom (Neil Chinneck) and Gary (Alan Grant), a reasonably happy couple who are living together in the late sixties. Their lives are thrown into disarray when they realise that the reason for Gary’s rapidly expanding pot-belly is not due to a lack of sit-ups, but to the fact that he is experiencing the first ever case of male pregnancy.
It’s a good premise; the opening image of the pregnant Gary (Grant sporting a bulbous and realistically hairy prosthetic belly) will stay with me for a while. The writing is at its best when Spencer uses the concept to effortlessly challenge perceptions of gender and sexuality. The play is also interesting when taken in context; described as ‘the first openly gay play’, it was first performed in 1968, just a year after the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the abolition of theatre censorship. Throughout the play, the reaction of society and government towards the pregnancy is hysterical, oppressive and unfair. Paul Giddings and Rachel Gleaves multi-role as various societal figures, from nurses to parents to politicians, most of whom are motivated by a moral righteousness which allows them to justify their completely immoral treatment of Tom, Gary and their child. It’s hard not to watch the play and be thankful that it was written nearly 50 years ago, as it conveys a real feeling of intolerance that you’d hope we have moved on from; then you remember that our current prime minister voted against same-sex adoption.
So, a thematically relevant production to begin the King’s Head’s ‘Queer Season’. Unfortunately it stutters in execution. For a comedy, it elicited very few laughs. The writing is certainly problematic in this regard, because the comedic material has not aged as well as the dramatic. This leaves the actors in a challenging position. I felt that the central performance by Grant seems to rush through the lines, without making sense of them or realising any of their comic potential. Giddings and Gleaves fare better. They have fun playing their various characters with exaggerated accents and affectations. The problem is, their performances create a stylistic dissonance; they play too big to harmonise with the more grounded performances of Chinneck and Grant, but not big enough that it comes across as a deliberate choice to make their characters’ completely surreal.
Amy Ambrose stands out as Sally. She’s spirited, silly and a bit sad. Her character is also the best example of the production’s great success: the sixties aesthetic. There are some lovely costume choices (including baker boy hats and turtle necks) and a selection of period musical hits and colourful lighting accompany the scene transitions. During these, Ambrose provides a distraction from the set changes with a few sixties dance moves and she brings the same energy and warmth to them as she does to her character.
If director Gareth Corke’s efforts with the characters and the story were as lively as his recreation of the period and setting, then this would have been a thoroughly enjoyable evening. As is, it’s certainly a light-hearted, polished production with themes that are worth investigating, but it struggles to find humour in the text or establish a consistent style.
Author: Colin Spencer
Director: Gareth Corke
Producer: King’s Head Theatre
Box Office: 0207 226 8561
Booking Link: https://kingsheadtheatre.ticketsolve.com/#/shows/873555320
Booking Until: 27 August 2016