Tuesday 15 June 2010


(The second play what we saw on our holiday)

'Women and gay people are the litmus test of whether a society is democratic and respecting human rights. We are the canaries in the mine.'
Peter Tatchell.

This quote, we’re told in the play’s notes, was part of the inspiration behind Jonathan Harvey’s latest play, Canary. The quote might seem a little naive but look closely at it and there’s a lot of true in it, it’s certainly a mark of a society in how it treats its minorities – any society can value the majority – and gay men, lesbians and woman have been politically and economically marginalised in British culture for centuries.

Previously, Jonathan Harvey’s plays have been very personal and domestic dramas, which focus on the lives of a small group of people over a certain period of time (His break through play Beautiful Things is a very good example of this). With Canary, Jonathan Harvey has moved onto much bigger subject matter, and he certainly rises to the occasion.

This is an epic play, its story spans from the police witch hunts of gay men in the early sixties, through aversion therapy of the mid-sixties, to the Gay Liberation front of the nineteen-seventies, through the AIDS crisis of the nineteen-eighties, and the moral backlash that went with it, right up to the present day, with an openly gay man presenting a primetime television program. The play, though, isn’t as neatly laid out as this description. The play jumps from different stories and different time periods, stories running at the same time, but it does all come together.

The play follows Tom, a policeman in the early sixties and a Chief Constable in the present day, and the relationships in his life. In present day Tom, his wife and daughter are besieged in their home by the press because someone has leaked a secret about him. In the nineteen-sixties young Tom and his lover Billy are caught by the police. Billy is sent to a mental hospital for aversion therapy to “cure” him. In the nineteen-seventies Mary Whitehouse plans her Festival of Light to reclaim the country from promiscuity. In the nineteen-eighties teenagers and best friends Russell and Mickey move to London but they get swept in the emerging AIDS crisis.

This isn’t an easy story to follow (As I saw after the performance by other people in the audience who obviously hadn’t followed the plot and were left confused), this isn’t a play just to sit back in and let it flow over yourself, you have to pay attention to the plot. The play goes from high comedy (the scene were the Gay Liberation Front disrupt the Festival of Light had me crying with laughter), to painful drama, through horror (the nightmare of aversion therapy) and tragedy (AIDS in the 1980’s), to magic realism (were Tom’s wife Ellie goes through her own journey into her past to make sense of her life). But ultimately this is a deeply rewarding play because here Jonathan Harvey explores the human stories and emotional cost of the events of our recent gay history. Unfortunately this history is being forgotten, our British society seems uninterested the experiences of lesbians and gay men, we may have acceptance but who’s interested in our journey here?

The acting here was universally good, the actors investing so much into their characters to make them come alive, even when the character was not likeable or only in one scene. Paula Wilcox and Sean Gallagher turn in their usual fine performances (I often wonder why these are two aren’t much bigger stars, they give such good performances) but the acting awards here must go to Philip Voss. His performance as older Tom was both cold and reserved but also warmly touching, his reconciliation with his former lover Billy after nearly forty years was almost heart breaking; but his impersonation of Mary Whitehouse made me week with laughter. He played her as a monster in a nylon dress with no understanding of how ridiculous she sounded.

This isn’t an easy, little drama but a bold and broad one, but it is well worth the effort of following its story. Jonathan Harvey here puts on stage stories that are rapidly being forgotten about in our society, stories that have shaped so much of what it means to be a gay man in 2010, stories we need to talk about. This play has been compared to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, it is certainly in the same epic and political vein, and that’s no bad thing.

Please Jonathan Harvey, more plays like Canary.


Sunday 13 June 2010

Holding the Man

(We were on annual leave last week so we took advantage of that to go to the theatre, here’s the first play what we saw...)

Theatrical adaptations of books can be a very hit and miss thing, often more miss then hit. Holding the Man is adapted from the autobiography by Timothy Conigrave, it spanned the nineteen-seventies to the early nineteen-nineties and is a love letter to his partner John. This is story is so broad that it could easily have got lost on stage or else been a stilted and halting journey, with huge jumps between scenes. Instead, Tommy Murphy (the play’s adaptor) has chosen a highly theatrical style to tell this story and here it works.

The central characters of Tim and John are played by two actors while four other actors play the dozens of other supporting characters in this story. There are some lightening fast costume changes, sometimes an actor changes character by quickly changing wig onstage. This could be clich├ęd, just another fringe play produced with all the corners cut, but the style of those four actors overcomes this, they work hard to make each character separate, even the ones only seen in one scene.

In the mid-seventies, at an all-boys Catholic school in Melbourne, Australia, Tim meets John and fell head-over-heels in love with him; but John’s the captain of the football team. Then one evening they share a kiss, soon to fall into the heady nature of teenage relationships; but their relationship lasts, a strong cord always pulling them back to each other. They survive parental disapproval, university, trial separation, seeing others, and the explosion of gay life in the late seventies; but it is AIDS that finally pulls them apart. In the nineteen-eighties both Tim and John were diagnosed HIV positive, but it was to be John who died first from AIDS (Tim finished his memoir only weeks before he himself died).

This isn’t a fantasy of the ideal gay relationship, Tim and John’s relationship is all too real. They are both individuals, John wanting the quiet life with his lover and a home; while Tim explores self expression, first as an actor and then a writer, but also as a gay man. At university he discovered Gay Liberation, after that he took every opportunity to explore his sexuality, which leads him to cheat on Tim many times. On paper they would never have been lovers, but in real life their deep love for each other keeps drawing them back together and keeps them forgiving each other.

As Tim and John, respectively, Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes originated the roles in the original Australian production of Holding the Man, and their comfort and familiarity in the roles showed. They had a chemistry in their roles that made Tim and John’s deep love easily believable. Jane Turner (Of Kath and Kim fame) and Simon Burke provided outstanding support in more than a dozen roles each, ranging from both lovers’ parents through doctors to disco queens.

This play almost has the feel of a historical piece, of a history play; events have changed so much since the early nineties. Combined therapy has changed the scene of HIV/AIDS so much, AIDS no longer carries the mark of death it once did. This play is a reminder of the dark days of AIDS, the tragedy that tore apart and cut short so many lives.

The ending of the play could be seen as melodramatic and even sentimental, but it is appropriate for the story. John’s death was slow, painfully slow, and drawn out, the emotions of the characters being dulled by the sheer force of it all. This was how it was so often in life, not a simple and easy goodbye. At the end of the play we are given Tim left alone and broken, he has lost the love of his life and has nowhere to turn.

Recent history seems to get quickly forgotten. This play is a timely reminder of those dark days of the worst of the AIDS crisis, which we should never forget.

Holding the Man
Trafalgar Studios