By Alexei Kaye Campbell
Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, Westminster, SW1A 2DY
To November 9, 2013
It's taken 5 years for this Olivier award-winning play to reach the West End, after an acclaimed debut at the tiny Royal Court Upstairs and a hit run off Broadway. Its subject, the changing attitudes to homosexuality, couldn't be more topical however, as in the interim, a number of countries have legalised same sex marriage, whilst in Russia the clock has gone backwards.
Here Kaye Campbell contrasts the stories of two sets of gay men and a straight woman between 1958 and 2008. In 1958 Harry (Harry Hadden-Paton) is a solid middle class businessman, married to book illustrator Sylvia (Hayley Atwell), who falls into an affair with Oliver (Al Weaver), his wife's rather effete and tweedy work colleague. Fifty years later we meet another gay couple, also called Harry and Oliver, who are breaking up as a consequence of Oliver's addiction to promiscuous sex and here, the Sylvia is Oliver's straight soul mate.
While the 1950s story might be overly familiar from so many films and plays, Kaye Campbell counterpoints the psychological misery of the unhappily married couple from 50 years ago with the equal misery of the modern gay couple and so takes the piece beyond a reflection on the insidious nature of prejudice and explores instead more universal themes: lack of esteem, lack of self knowledge and the search for love – gay or straight. This is therefore not a "gay play", whatever that might have meant in the first place.
The writer is blessed with Jamie Lloyd's wonderfully fluid direction, Soutra Gilmour's stunningly simple set (a huge mirror) and a top-notch cast of four up and coming young stars who make it fly. This is Lloyd's third production as part of Trafalgar Transformed and they just get better.
Kaye Campbell has a fine ear for period dialogue and Hadden-Paton, so great in Flare Path, fits this 1950s world like a glove. Atwell too switches with effortless ease between the clipped 1950s lady and the more emotionally naked modern women, caught up in an intense relationship with her gay best friend, such that she struggles to ensure her own Italian lover is not squeezed out of the picture.
The standout of the trio though is Al Weaver. His modern Oliver gets by on his wit and charm but he has never found ease with himself and Weaver inhabits the part so totally it is almost uncomfortable to watch. He brings such color and nuance to the character it's as if it were written for him.
There is also light relief, in every sense, from TV star Matthew Horne (from Gavin and Stacey), who plays a trio of totally contrasting supporting parts – a comic triumph as a middle aged rent boy looking for respect, a spine chilling turn as a 1950s clinician taking sadistic pleasure in administering aversion therapy and a delightful ebullience to the part of a brash Lads Mag editor who employs Oliver and quips "You gay guys innovate in so many areas: music, fashion, dogging".
It's a poignant, funny, richly ambiguous and utterly compelling piece.