F**king Men – Waterloo East Theatre, London

Reviewer: John Cutler

Writer: Joe DiPietro

Director: Steve Kunis

Can it really be 16 years since Joe DiPietro’s fringe favourite F**king Men had its first outing at West London’s Finborough Theatre? The gay retelling of Schnitzler’s notorious classic La Ronde has had a fair few outings since then, most recently last year in a sell-out run directed by Steve Kunis at the Waterloo East Theatre. That production is now back in Waterloo for another six weeks with a new cast of four and some minor updating. Truth be told, the piece is showing its age.

F**king Men consists of ten interlocking scenes that explore aspects of sex and relationships between men. One character from each scene goes on to appear in the next, with the final vignette bringing us back pretty much to where we started, albeit with a twist in the tail. The over-arching theme that connects the circular story is the tension (as DiPietro sees it) that gay and bi men experience between the lure of anonymous sex and the attractions of something approaching heteronormative monogamy. Opinions will vary as to whether the choice has quite the central importance in the lives of gay men as DiPietro might suppose (some of us are more preoccupied with paying the mortgage and not killing the houseplants), or indeed whether the puzzle is unique to gay and bi men. But it is a recognisable challenge, nonetheless.

“Are we made to have sex with the same person over and over again our whole lives?” is how academic Leo (David Michaels who has the best of a patchy evening’s performances) poses the conundrum to his husband of 11 years Jack (Jason Eddy). One of the duo feels trapped by the idea of monogamy while the other feels liberated by it. The couple’s solution is an unwritten rule not to tell each other when they have sex with other people. “You can lie and lie, and the marriage can still work,” says a cynical Jack to porn star and bit-on-the-side Ryan (Rory Connolly), who he is putting up in a luxury flat in return for sexual favours. But can any marriage really work if it is built on lies?

Graduate student Marco (Joe Bishop) tries the truth approach when he tells his boyfriend that fantasising about someone else when they have sex is the only way he can orgasm. That does not go down too well, so a gaslighted and mortified Marco allows himself to be seduced by one of his students. “Why would any dude have sex with a stranger? Marco asks himself rhetorically. “I’m here and he’s not” the student replies. As an elucidation for the allure of quick sex with strangers, it is pithy, if a little thin.

Also in the mix is “I’m not gay I’m in the army” grunt Steve, whose tryst with sex worker John tops and tails the piece. DiPietro sees the porn star and the sex-worker as the two characters most inclined to strive towards a monogamous relationship. It just about makes sense as dramatic conceit. As a reflection of reality, it stretches credibility.

It is not just the supposed tension between coupledom and fun that feels dated here. Closeted journalist Donald thinks he cannot have a career as a show talk host if he comes out, so keeps a wife as a beard and mourns in silence for his lost love Philip. Perhaps he has never heard of Graham Norton. Oscar-nominated sci-fi actor Brandon thinks he will not get cast in blockbuster movies if he comes out, so restricts his trysts to hotel room cupboards (literally and metaphorically in the closet). Is filmmaking really quite so rigidly homophobic in 2024? One hopes not. Writer Sammy, based on DiPietro himself, pays lip-service to the current preoccupation with what some label ‘wokedom’ (“It’s my artistic ambition to be cancelled”, he tells us) but deep down he is a deeply reactionary character from another era entirely.

Cara Evans delivers a kind of louche nightclub set, edged in beaded lights, and bisected in an X-configuration by screens of smart glass that switch between translucent and opaque in an instant. The effect is to open up and close off parts of the stage as each new coupling unfolds. It is a clever way of using the Waterloo East’s intimate space but also communicates that some aspects of these characters’ lives remain permanently obscured from view. An oval couch sits stage forward, a suitable echo of the circularity of the events taking place on and around it.

Runs until 26 May 2024

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Gay fringe favourite redux.

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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