The Boys in the Band, Park Theatre, review: ‘Powerful milestone on road to self acceptance’

The Boys in the Band. Picture: Darren Bell

The Boys in the Band. Picture: Darren Bell - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton finds a landmark 60s comedy of gay life dated and flawed but often moving

Reviving landmark plays always runs the risk that the years may not have been kind.

Commercially successful a year before the Stonewall Riots, Mart Crowley’s 1968 black comedy about eight gay men – plus one avowedly straight - at a New York birthday party, offered mainstream audiences their first glimpse into a closeted world.

Gay characters had previously been sinister or shrouded in code - yet here they were from butch, divorced Hank to camp Emory and dim hustler Cowboy, dancing to records and swilling booze on a Saturday night.

Pre gay rights, these anti-depressant-popping alcoholics have been eaten up by oppression and rage to the point where they turn on each other and themselves.

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It’s an uncomfortable watch as Ian Hallard’s waspish slef-loathing party host Michael invents a cruel parlour game forcing each man to ring the person they love most.

After a slow start, Adam Penford’s well-cast revival gathers pace but cannot paper over flaws including overlong exposition, underwritten parts, and contrived set pieces.

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But there are some killer one-liners and the unexpected arrival

of Michael’s “straight, square” college room mate Alan in time to witness a camp dance, tips the febrile increasingly boozy atmosphere into shocking homophobic violence.

As a fish out of water conduit to gay culture John Hopkins’ facial expressions run the gamut of disgust, pity and finally a glimmer of understanding as James Holmes’ effeminate Emory reveals a tragically unrequited longing for an older schoolmate.

Greg Lockett’s equally affecting Bernard quietly shoulders the added burdens of colour and class, as the butt of his friends’ racist jokes, harbouring buried desire for the son of his mother’s white

employer. Describing himself as an “ugly pockmarked Jew fairy” birthday boy Harold is played by the ever watchable Mark Gatiss as supercilious, caustic and clearly unhappy. There are kindnesses between this dysfunctional urban family, but gay life is mostly shown as miserable, anxious and lonely.

It’s not only Michael’s taupe cashmere jumper that’s time travelled badly. But while this isn’t always gripping drama it’s a powerful milestone on the road to self acceptance.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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