Writer: Matt Crowley
Director: Adam Penford
Reviewer: Stephen M Hornby
The auditorium is pumped full of a medley of the divas of yesteryear; black and white portraits of the women are hung in perfect composition on the rear wall of a flat straight out of Mad Men; a sudden burst of sound and swirling lights signals a move back in time. It’s 1968 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and Michael is hosting a birthday party for his best ‘frenemy’, Harold, a party that will see the cultivated facades of every guest stripped, often mercilessly, away. If a prolonged, often toe-curlingly uncomfortable emotional melee of nine men ripping each other to shreds is something you want to spend an evening witnessing, then The Boys in the Band is for you. If not, you might find yourself feeling a little queasy.
Whatever the reservations about the play itself, this is a solid production of it in lots of ways. There is a good ensemble feel to the cast, who create a strong sense of an urban pseudo-family group. Collectively they occasionally lack the comic pacing that some of the rapid fire one-liner sequences require, but there are strong individual performances. Ben Mansfield and Nathan Nolan play a couple struggling with the pressure of only one of them wanting monogamy. They create a touching journey for their characters from spiky jealousy through to a kind of loving compromise, which is completely engaging. Jack Derges is lovably dumb as a sexy call boy, finding all the comedy that the part will allow. Ian Hallard, as Michael, portrays a descent in a kind of self-induced breakdown that is quite unnerving in its brutal collapse. Mark Gatiss doesn’t quite capture the sense of being a coiled cobra that is vital to successfully playing Harold, but his comic timing is impeccable.
The Boys in the Band has a history of dividing critical and political opinion. For some, it is so full of self-hating, narcissistic and simply vile behaviour that it is almost unperformable, as relevant to the gay community now as blackface is to African Americans. Others have defended it as a necessary stepping stone on the path of progress, giving a minority a voice, cataloguing its growing pains, and inspiring it to do better. At the time of the original production, some gay men argued that it had a transformative effect on the straight people who saw it. Wherever you sit in that spectrum of opinion, quite why it is being revived in 2016 is something of a mystery. Too much of the language and too many of the scenes leave a bad taste in the mouth. Playing a brutal homophobic attack for laughs or seeing a black character (written by a white man, of course) being an apologist for people using shockingly racist language towards him are the kinds of scenes that bemuse an audience today.
The play was significant and in many ways progressive in 1968, but it also had lots of faults even then. In 2016 the worse parts of the play have become amplified, its novelty has evaporated, its jokes have worn thin and the politics of its representational strategies look highly dubious. If, as Matt Crowley has claimed, this is an accurate representation of his memory of the gay social milieu of the time, then it is a painful memory to witness again and one that is perhaps best consigned to history.
Runs until 6 November 2016 | Image: Darren Bell