Writer: Tom Ratcliffe
Director: Andy Twyman
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
There’s a school of thought that thinks that there should be a limit on LGBTQ+ plays and films that depict their characters as lonely and suicidal. Such narratives as these can only perpetuate the beliefs that gay lives are sad and self-destructive. LGBTQ+ people, this argument suggests, will mirror the narratives they see on stage or screen, perceiving these as the only trajectories available. Circa, the new play by the young playwright Tom Ratcliffe, would certainly trouble those who call for a moratorium on these bleak, desperate texts.
Circa follows the life of an artist from his first awkward sexual encounter in his teenage years up to his late middle age where sex is still fraught with complications. Usually, gay plays about sex are very funny; they may have serious aims but they reach this end through comedy, parody or metaphor. Circa has few laughs, with the script only occasionally gesturing towards humour. It is one of the soberest gay plays to come out for years.
There are a few hesitant laughs in the first scene where our young hero, nervous and inexperienced, asks for petrol money after driving in the dark to meet an older man he’s met on the internet. He thinks he’s going on a date, with dinner and a DVD, but the older man just wants sex. There’s no romance here, but this doesn’t deter our hero who, as the next 30years go by, is determined to find deeper meaning in sex.
Characters have conversations about fidelity and about the pressure on members of the LGBTQ+ community to mimic heterosexual conventions. They are expected to get married, get a joint mortgage, move to the suburbs and adopt a child or two. Of course, this is not the first time that plays have discussed such ideas, but surely never as seriously or quietly?
These scenes under Andy Twyman’s direction are played leisurely and, refreshingly, no one shouts or gesticulates manically. Instead, the five actors create relatable characters. Thomas Flynn is startlingly good as our hero in his youth, and then as a wise drag queen, and then later as a man in the near future who uses sex as a way to increase his ratings on social media. When the main protagonist hits his 30s, he is played by Daniel Abelson, world-weary, but still idealistic. Anthony Gabriel plays the painter when he reaches middle age, as well as two other men who are mercenary in their pursuit of sex.
Joseph Rowe is also strong, but frustratingly his two characters remain cyphers; Ethan seems shallow, happy for a gay life full of jockstraps and nightclubs while Eric harbours inner demons that we can only guess at. The one female role, ominously entitled The Solution in the cast list, is played well by Jenna Fincken, but her part is small in comparison to the male actors.
If the story wasn’t desolate enough, Luke W. Robson’s set, two grey walls of a pavilion or of a characterless five-star hotel, transforms the Old Red Lion’s stage. Robson is also responsible for the sound design, and haunting piano music hangs in the air as a melancholic refrain, underscoring the lost lives we see on stage. There are only the faintest traces of optimism in Circa, but this play is compelling, mature and important.
Circa first saw light at The VAULT Festival in 2016, proving that London’s biggest fringe event is a great platform for emerging creatives. Ratcliffe was back at this year’s VAULT with his one-man show Velvet, which was one of the early highlights of the eight-week festival. Ratcliffe is proving to be a significant new voice in LGBTQ+ theatre.