Safe Sex – VAULT Festival, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

 Writer: Harvey Fierstein

Director: Jacob Trenerry

Harvey Fierstein referred to Safe Sex as a comedy. His 1987 play only has a few laughs, but Fierstein labelled it as such because, unlike other AIDS texts at the time, no one dies. And strangely and cleverly this play isn’t really about AIDS at all, but about intimacy.

When they first met New Yorkers Ghee and Mead would argue about politics before having really good sex. Now, a few years later, they agree on politics, but argue about sex. Ghee keeps Mead at a distance, saying he’s scared that he will catch the HIV virus. He’s not even sure it’s safe to shower together. He’s got a list somewhere on what they can and cannot do.

Mead understands that instead of being frightened of AIDS, Ghee is actually terrified of intimacy, common in a society where gay people are encouraged to hate themselves. One night the two men decide to thrash out the problem once and for all.

To represent how precarious this conversation will be, director Jacob Trenerry has the two actors sit on either end of a seesaw, trying to maintain balance. It’s a nice touch and it underlines, too, the distance between them. The Network Theatre Company had planned to use a real seesaw, but that proved to be too tricky. Still, even on the static one they use, the actors do well to give the sense that one end of the seesaw could suddenly tip up.

Sam Neal as Ghee is excellent bringing a little of Fierstein to his performance. Perhaps in preparation for this role Neal watched Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy, the film based on Fierstein’s hit play. Neal channels the older actor in his gesticulations and in the way he tightens the wrap around him. But Neal’s performance is also his own, more muted and still than Fierstein’s would be.

As the less sensitive partner, George White has little to say. He’s more comfortable in himself, wanting nothing more after a hard day at work than a few beers with the boys then home to watch a game on the TV. For most of the play, White sits in his vest listening, only the glint in his eyes suggesting that he’s moved by what Ghee is saying. It’s another remarkable understated performance.

Despite the play’s hidden depths Safe Sex is very short, and running at only 35 minutes the resolution comes to soon. Perhaps, this play could be paired with a new one that looks at gay relationships today. It would be interesting to see if things have changed much since the 1980s. Do gay men still fear to be loved?

Runs until 15 March 2020

The Reviews Hub Score


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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