Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss and husband Ian Hallard star in The Boys in the Band

Ian Hallard and Mark Gatiss star in The Boys in the Band

Ian Hallard and Mark Gatiss star in The Boys in the Band - Credit: Archant

The Boys in the Band was the first Broadway play to feature an entire cast of gay characters. Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard talk about reviving the ground-breaking production

Controversial and ground-breaking The Boys in the Band was the first Broadway play to feature an entire cast of gay characters.

Premiering 14 months before the Stonewall Riots, which were sparked by a heavy-handed police raid on an LGBT bar in Greenwich Village, Mart Crowley’s verbally frank depiction of gay life in New York is credited with awakening a new confidence in the community.

As Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss, who stars in a revival at the Park Theatre points out, at a time when gay life involved hiding and harassment: “It’s hard to imagine the impact it would have had for them going to the theatre, seeing nine gay men having a lively party and saying ‘f***, that’s my Saturday night.”

Set in a Manhattan apartment where Gatiss’ character Harold celebrates his birthday with six of his closest friends, Crowley’s play unexpectedly found favour with straight audiences and ran for 1,000 performances. As Gatiss speculates: “They probably thought ‘that’s ok they are not happy’.”

But despite its whip-crack one liners, Crowley’s portrayal of self-loathing and addiction fell out of step with an emerging gay rights movement based around positivity and pride.

Gatiss, who co-stars with his actor husband Ian Hallard says: “It was quickly followed by a time when it was important to have positive role models. It’s gone in and out of fashion but it’s still got an awful lot to say and it’s timely to revisit a very funny play.

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“There’s usually a good reason why plays last. As a play about a group of friends it feels timeless but there are lots of things which feel they have come back around again. We are not trying to update it, we can see where gay people were and how we have progressed, but a lot of things have stayed the same; particularly about mental health issues. The idea that all the battles have been won is not true.”

Hallard who plays the bitchy Michael hosting the party adds: “It’s sharp and funny and stands up extremely well. Certain types within this gay circle will still be familiar to an awful lot of people. There are all shades of opinion and attitudes – my character is dealing with internal homophobia which is an uncomfortable thing for a gay audience to watch, but I think theatre should provoke a response, and make people annoyed.

“Expecting one gay character to represent an entire community is impossible. He’s vile to his friends and has so many issues but it’s not saying that all gay people are like that rather but what’s made him like that?”

Speaking at the production launch producer Tom O’Connell described the play as “iconic”.

“It entertains, educates and inspires, makes you laugh out loud but also makes you think. As a young gay man I often forget what my predecessors had to fight in society. It helps my generation remember what gay life was like during the 60s and 70s.

“The Stonewall Riots happened 18 months after it was staged and it inspired gay people to make their voices heard.”

The Park’s production will be helmed by Adam Penford whose credits include the hit production One Man Two Guvnors.

He asked “why revive a play that’s 48 years old?”

“Millions of people are still struggling to deal with their sexuality and the play explores that in lots of ways.

“We still have in the gay community a higher level of mental illness, suicide and addiction whether to alcohol, drugs or sex. It feels incredibly pertinent and says things that feel raw and touch a nerve. It’s also an amazingly entertaining funny witty camp play a cult classic.”

Gatiss, who jokes that because gay marriage hadn’t existed when the play was written, he and Hallard would “have had to bring our beards to the premiere”, has just finished filming the fourth season of Sherlock in Cardiff.

As co-creator of the hit series in which he also plays Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, filming takes him away from the couple’s Islington home for long periods.

Acting opposite each other, he said, “is our only chance to see each other”.

“The Park is close to home, the timing fitted perfectly, I had known the play forever and I thought ‘f*** it I’d love to’.”

He adds: “Doing a series like Sherlock for four months as an actor writer and producer is a particular way of working. So to come to something totally different with a group of new people is exciting. I love that thing of bonding with a new company. It’s a lovely feeling.”

The Boys in the Band runs at The Park Theatre from September 28 until October 30.

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