The Boys in the Band – Park Theatre, London

Writer: Mart Crowley
Director: Adam Penford
Reviewer: Stephen Bates

When Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band opened in New York in 1968, it raised many eyebrows, but, today, the only thing shocking about it is the factthat anyone ever saw it as shocking.

tell-us-block_editedThe play centres on a raucous birthdayparty to whichMichael (Ian Hallard) has invitedfive other gay menin honour of their friend Harold. First to arrive is the neurotic Donald (Daniel Boys), followed by the flamboyantEmory (James Holmes); “you can take her anywhere but out” we are told. Then comes Bernard (Greg Lockett), a black man dubbed “Queen of Spades” and, finally, the insecurely coupled Larry (Ben Mansfield) and Hank (Nathan Nolan). Emory’s $20 birthday gift for Harold is a dimwitted, muscular”cowboy” (Jack Derges).

Preparations are interrupted when Michael gets a phone call from Alan (John Hopkins), a supposedly straight friend from college days, who then turns up to the partyuninvited, clashing head-on with other guests.Thisunconvincingcharacter is written weakly, always feeling like no more than a very obviousdevice introduced by Crowley to serve as a catalyst for the drama, particularly in a soul-baring game thatMichael gets the intoxicatedpartygoers to play.

We have to wait until seconds before the interval for the arrival of Harold, in the inimitable form of Mark Gatiss.Dressed in a pitch black suit with matching hair, Harold announces himself as “a 42-year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jewish fairy”, thereby illustrating Crowley’s reliance on self-deprecation as a source of humour, Withering put-downs also feature highly, with characters spitting out insults like poisoned darts, using many expressions that would fall foul of political correctness rules in these more enlightened times.The comedy bubbles enjoyably in Adam Penford’s nimble production for as long as it lasts, but then things turn serious.

Written ata time when homophobia and racism were embedded deeplyin social attitudes and popular culture, the play starts to feel most dated when itbecomesdarker.Hallard’s tormented Michael now dominates impressively, but the problem is that concerns affecting the LGBT community now aredifferent from those of 48 years ago. The issues discussed franklyhere would have made this an important play when it was first staged, but now those issues seem to belong to the distant past and the play feels slight,

Michael’s swish apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is realised beautifully in Rebecca Brower’s set design, complete with posters of movie goddesses looking down from highon the assembled revellers. Dated though the play is, the set and a tip-top company give this revival a distinct touch of class.

Runs until 30 October 2016 | Image: Darren Bell

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