Having connected online, a pretty young man (Thomas Flynn) and a bulky older guy (Antony Gabriel) meet for an unsuccessful sexual encounter. Then the pretty boy plays a strip game with a friend (and lover?) who tries to discourage him from moving to London to attend art school. Next, at art school we find pretty boy enamoured of an older student (Joseph Rowe) who’s about to abandon him to study in Paris. And so it rolls on…
At first I had feared Tom Ratcliffe’s play was going to be yet another version of La Ronde, so I was encouraged when Circa deviated from the AB/BC/CD structure of that over-adapted work. Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that what the script offers instead is even less satisfying.
Circa consists of a series of scenes – some short and shallow, others much more protracted – depicting various conundrums of gay life. It’s mostly inconsequential stuff with issues and characters that go undeveloped, and the handful of scenes that attempt to address more complex themes get bogged down in discursive debates that stifle any hint of drama. Subjects such as artistic integrity, and whether gay people who aspire to marriage and parenthood are “pretending to be straight” are potentially fascinating, but not when treated with as much theatricality as pub banter between mates.
In the programme, characters are given objective labels (eg “The First Fling”, “The Partner”) but these don’t seem to cover each role the cast takes on. Some, but not all characters, seem to recur, but it’s all a bit fudged and hence confusing.
In the second half, Daniel Abelson’s character, who had a history with one of Rowe’s – or was it Flynn’s? – seems to be playing it straight with Jenna Fincken’s “The Solution”, but also paying a rent boy to cross dress as her. The final scene appears to be a futuristic, Black Mirror style replay of the kid/oldie hook-up we saw at the beginning, but if this is intended as some sort of circular narrative it fails to make its meaning clear.
For a show that’s predictably marketed with the image of a naked man (because that’s the only way to get gay bums on seats, right lads?) Circa is a sexually tame affair, with the lights frequently going down before we can even witness a kiss. If the focus is supposed to be on relationships instead, then I’m afraid that topic is treated with a similar lack of illumination.
There’s some good work from the cast. Abelson and Rowe have a good rapport, and Abelson has a very appealing stage presence – a sort of mix of Martin Freeman and Leonard Rossiter, very human and simultaneously aware of the limits of his humanity. Fincken effectively freshens the very male dynamic, though sadly for just one scene, and Flynn has fun with cross-dressing rent boy “Plastic”. But the actors’ efforts are not enough to conjure meaningfulness from what feels more like a succession of unconvincing sketches than a play.