Pros: Versatile performers and interesting subject.
Cons: Lack of emotional connection.
You tend to see a lot of flesh in gay theatre. Much of it is gratuitous and cynically designed to entice a certain audience, so it is to the credit of writer Tom Jacobson and director Marylynne Anderson-Cooper that they manage to tell this story about gay mens’ suppression a hundred years ago in America with the actors clothed throughout. Zips go up and down, and indelible pens make intimate marks, but this is a refreshingly titillation-free study of historical attitudes. There isn’t even a kiss, which is boldly restrained for a piece in this genre.
We meet pretty young actor Brown (Fraser Wall) as he waits nervously to audition for his first feature film role. He is joined by the self-avowedly more rugged Warren (James Sindall), his rival and a much more experienced performer. What follows is a cleverly-constructed game of cat and mouse as the pair spar for the role. Under the guise of an improvisation exercise, Warren leads Brown on a moral investigation of the sexual politics of Los Angeles in 1916 and the entrapment of gay men for the crime of “social vagrancy”.
Each actor assumes a number of roles, with props and costumes conveniently at hand courtesy of a loaded clothes rail and large trunk which, along with a couple of chairs, is all that’s on the stage.
Power shifts between the two performers as the play progresses, and some impressive reversals are achieved which contextualise the social judgements of the time and invite the audience to consider alternative perspectives. The characters are secretive and changeable, and Wall and Sindall do a fine job keeping us guessing who will eventually win the peculiar game they’re playing.
Satisfyingly intelligent as Jacobson’s script is, there’s a certain alienating frigidity in the interplay of these characters. With so many personas adopted and discarded, it’s difficult to fully empathise with Brown, Warren, or any of the characters they temporarily inhabit. The cleverness and subtlety of the production mean there’s no place for the depth of feeling present in more emotive works on a similar theme, such as Nicholas de Jongh’s Plague Over England.
The simple set allows us to focus effortlessly on the two accomplished performers, though an almost entirely static sound and lighting design made me wonder if the story couldn’t have gained something from a more imaginative technical approach. I wouldn’t have objected to a little set dressing, either – the Jermyn is a wonderful black box studio, but sometimes those blank walls cry out for something to let them join in with what’s happening onstage.
From our relatively enlightened modern perspective, the vengeful state of homophobia a century ago seems almost farcical – but it was no laughing matter for the victims living through it. This play serves as a thoughtful and sophisticated reminder of the paranoia and misunderstanding of those times, even if it doesn’t manage to connect us to the emotional heart of the matter.
Director: Marylynne Anderson-Cooper
Writer: Tom Jacobson
Producer: The Collective/Jermyn Street Theatre
Booking Until: Saturday 28 January
Booking Link: http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/twentieth-century-way/