Acclaimed amateur theatre society Sedos present a faithful recreation of Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! at the Bridewell Theatre, which explores the complexity of relationships, forgiveness and infidelity within a friendship group of eight gay men. Set over three weekends at Gregory Mitchell’s (James Daly) lakeside house in Dutchess County, New York, the story attempts, with some success, to expose the reality of living during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 90s. Its ‘slice of life’ approach allows us to connect to each character; to understand them even if we do not always like them.
Tensions arise when Gregory, a renowned choreographer at the end of his career, invites his friends to the second home he shares with his younger, blind partner, Bobby Brahms (Simon Brooke). The monogamous paradigm is challenged by ‘hot body’ Ramon Fornos, brought to life with great sass and carefreeness by Fernando Cahnfeld. Ramon is a young Puerto-Rican dancer and current lover of cynical British composer, John Jeckyll (Rob Ingham), who previously dated the musical theatre-obsessed Buzz Hauser (Jacob Hajjar) for ‘fifteen minutes’. John’s conveniently identical twin, James (also played by Ingham), completes the band. He and Buzz are both diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and form a heart-warming, beautiful and bitter-sweet connection.
Though volume is sometimes lacking, all the actors give strong performances, especially considering this is an amateur production, with some making their Sedos debut. There are excellent movement sequences from Daly, which I appreciated even more after overhearing he has no prior dance experience. Bobby is a difficult character, but Brooke plays him so well that he is endearing despite his flaws. Ingham steals the show as both the loveable James and his detestable brother John, with each having their own entirely unique yet exceedingly British persona. Hajjar is hilarious, displaying superb comedic timing, yet he is able to powerfully deliver a poignant dramatic monologue.
Although poking fun at some gay stereotypes, the play also acknowledges when that is defied, such as when Arthur Pape (Lewis McKenzie) and Perry Sellars (Robbie Fulford) celebrate their anniversary. Arthur is the nicer, kinder accountant husband (despite previous infidelity) and Perry is the foul-mouthed, snobby husband.
I enjoyed the simplicity of the staging, with a piece of set rotated by the cast signalling the changing of rooms, as well as the rooftop beach where Ramon sunbathes naked in the second act. The music and lighting recreates the joy and expression of the men.
The production gives adequate coverage to each character, with each clearly defined and fleshed out. It also touches on many sensitive issues relating to disability, sexuality, gender, religion and politics. However, despite the lengthy runtime, these topics are not explored in any real depth, which sometimes feels more harmful than helpful. It would be more impactful if shorter; covering fewer social issues with more care. The play is a product of its time, but as Sedos’ “first exclusively queer story” some updating would enable it to speak further to a wider gay community from this era, particularly by also demonstrating that black people were affected by the epidemic in the 90s. Also, as one of two black audience members on the night, I was deeply uncomfortable and disappointed when the n-word was used and not fully explored. In this way, a play that could have been more insightful became somewhat alienating.
The nod to the COVID 19 pandemic with which the play opens and ends is a powerful reminder that just like COVID, HIV/AIDS is all of our problem. Clearly, more comprehensively diverse representation in an otherwise entertaining play would be a way to help reinforce this message.
Written by Terrence McNally
Directed and Designed by Robert J. Stanex
Assistant Directed by Louise Roberts
Produced by Rebecca Chisholm
Movement and Intimacy Direction by Kimberly Barker
Lighting Design by Ben Hussey
Sound Design by Adam Lockett
Love! Valour! Compassion! played at the Bridewell Theatre from 5 to 9 July 2022. Further information can be found here.