Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London SW1
Opened 1 December, 2008

Actor Alexi Kaye Campbell’s first produced work as a playwright shows thought and sensitivity in telling parallel stories of a gay couple in 1958 and in 2008, but I’m afraid that at a number of moments it overdoes things just that tiny but fatal amount which tips matters into ridiculousness.
Certainly, the opening 1958 scene is meant to be stilted, as an indicator both of the era and of the subliminal signals which children’s author Oliver and his illustrator’s husband Philip pick up from each other; and actors and director Jamie Lloyd have thought seriously about period pronunciation. Nevertheless, much of the two men’s early exchanges sound reminiscent of comedian Harry Enfield’s antiquated information-film character Mr Cholmondeley-Warner. Just after the interval, when the 2008 journalist version of Oliver is meeting with the straight editor of a new gay-targeted magazine, the latter is given quite an affecting recollection of the death from AIDS of an uncle, but it drowns beneath a tsunami of uncomprehending “gay is cool” banality – again, intended to position the character, but way too much to be plausible.
Bertie Carvel is excellent as Oliver, unable in 1958 to give up on a married man and unable in 2008 to reconcile a deep love for his just-departed ex with his own compulsion for casual encounters that broke the relationship. Carvel is at his most eloquent when failing to say something: his mouth and face work in discreet spasm, and somehow suggest both what the words would have been and their reception. As Philip, J.J. Feild has one excellent scene towards the end, volunteering to undergo a primitive form of aversion therapy to “cure” him, he hopes, of his love for Oliver more than his sexual desires. His 2008 incarnation, in contrast, never comes into focus. Lyndsey Marshal as Sylvia also has a better time of it in 1958 as Philip’s wife than in 2008 as Oliver’s overwritten fag-hag friend (and the occasion moreover of some OTT drunk-acting). The staging slips fluidly between periods as it plays in front of Soutra Gilmour’s huge looking-glass of a set, but in the end the Fifties strand is over-articulated and the Noughties narrative doesn’t really tell us much at all except that things have changed a modicum in 50 years.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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