Director: Matt Powell
Writer: Jude Taylor
A musical comedy set against the backdrop of interwar glamour, Is He Musical?, tells the story of two friends, Wilfred and Laurence.
The pair meet at the Trocadero in London, 1933. Laurence Metcalf (played by Barry O’Reilly) is a newcomer to the bar scene. He has recently moved to the capital and has few friends. This all changes when a regular, Wilfred Thomas (Teddy Hinde), bursts in to greet an adoring crowd. Wilfred – younger, but loud and gregarious – introduces themself as a “powerful force”, beyond male or female identifiers.
Wilfred engages Laurence in learning “the tricks of the trade”, helping him gain access to a nightlife of decadence, naughtiness and fun. Wilfred, who works as a footman, is brash, wild and knowing beyond their years. But Laurence soon yearns for more. A chance invite gets him into The Caravan Club, dubbed “London’s greatest bohemian rendezvous”. What Laurence finds there, changes his outlook forever.
The chemistry between Hinde and O’Reilly really works – their piano duet is charming – but even better are the quieter moments of solitude we spend with each character. Laurence’s sweetly optimistic musings on love; Wilfred’s chink in the armour – a complicated affair with their employer, Lord Hemsworth. Is He Musical?’s creator Jude Taylor weaves in extra notes about sexuality and social status: Thomas and Hemsworth are playing the same game, but while one operates under the radar, the other enjoys a degree of freedom unthinkable for Wilfred and their associates.
Sometimes feeling too poignant to be called a comedy, Is He Musical? offers a glimpse into a secret world. This production, launched during LGBTQ+ History Month, uses real stories to convey the duality of queer life during this period. In a scene in Laurence’s flat, Wilfred discusses the fine art of make-up. Too little, and no-one notices. Too much, and you’re in trouble. Taylor’s play has a trace of menace running throughout. Life in 1933 is on borrowed time.
Together, Hinde and O’Reilly create a believable bond. They bicker and confide, and the harmony of their voices in Taylor’s songs, reinforces that these two are, despite superficial differences, birds of a feather. The intimacy of the staging – a few props with a live three-piece band – also help focus our attention on them. While Hinde has the harder role, O’Reilly’s idealist wins us over from the start. Sitting down at the piano enjoying the music, while the band play is a nice breaking-the-fourth-wall moment. Wilfred is a harder read, but in Hinde’s performance, the character’s vulnerability is signalled loud and clear. Hinde’s higher register is delicate and searching – articulating a profound need for love.
Is He Musical? aims for laughs, but the overwhelming pull, as history intervenes between the two friends, is what gives the play its substance. We see the events in a wider context, almost 100 years on. But as the characters wonder if their legacy will be “nothing but memories”, Taylor reminds us that precarity continues to insert itself into LGBTQ+ lives, especially as war approaches.
Available here until 6 March 2022