The Boys in the Band
Ned Hopkins | 09 Feb 2017 10:42am
The Boys in the Band – Company. Photo: Darren Bell
The passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 together with the abolition of stage censorship, brought a rash of productions dealing with sexual liberation to the West End stage. The three that arrived first the following year, arguably the most ground-breaking, had been originally staged in North America: the flower-power musical Hair, John Herbert’s scorching but neglected account of homosexuality in a Canadian prison Fortune and Men’s Eyes – and Mart Crowley’s wisecracking slice of New York gay life, The Boys in the Band.
This production, which I first saw last autumn at the Park Theatre, has been doing the rounds for some months. It is now enjoying a well-deserved final fling at the Vaudeville and, in Adam Penford’s well-paced production, the excellent ensemble cast seem to be getting even more mileage out of Crowley’s witty text than ever.
As the lights go up on designer Rebecca Brower’s Manhattan loft with its tan and lime G-plan furnishings, and flashing photos of Judy, Marilyn and Bette, we know exactly where we are – and when. Michael is hosting a birthday party for his friend Harold. The play starts with a lengthy duologue between him and his friend Donald, preparing us for the entertaining exposure to follow of New York’s hedonistic yet self-flagellating gay sub-culture – still outside the law and over a decade before the onset of AIDS.
Through lively camp banter, we are introduced to the party guests as they arrive. The majority appear fairly well-adjusted, apart from Michael who hates himself (the excellent Ian Hallard) and his ex-college married roommate Alan, who turns up unexpectedly, and is shocked by the throng of dancing queens. Yet even Alan is in denial about his tendresse for a fellow male student years before.
As the evening wears on, the alcohol releases Michael’s need for catharsis – or is it revenge, on just himself or the whole gay world? Maybe he doesn’t know. He involves his friends in a version of Albee’s ‘get-the-guests’, a cruel truth game whereby they are made to telephone the man they first loved – and tell him so.
It says a lot for the production that this dramatic shift manages to stay the right side of melodrama, allowing the characters, movingly, to express how they feel about themselves and each other. In the end, Michael only succeeds in humiliating himself, but not before Crowley has candidly discussed some of the truths and norms of homosexual behaviour. His understanding – and portrayal – of bi-sexuality is particularly sound.
Some critics sneer that the play is ‘dated’ – well, it’s fifty years old for heaven’s sake! – that the gay stereotypes seem quaint in today’s sophisticated, politically correct society. Certainly Michael represents an attitude of mind that is, mercifully on the wane. Yet I know people who – well after the dates of this play – subjected themselves to sexual-aversion therapy in order to cure themselves and be able to lead a ‘normal’ life (it didn’t work). Methods, albeit more humane methods, are still being practised (e.g. by the Mormons). And, I don’t have to remind you that homosexuality still, officially, attracts the death penalty in several countries.
In our so-called open Western world, gay people can now marry or enter into civil partnerships, yet many still find it difficult to come to terms with being ‘different’, especially outside the large metropolitan areas. Classic lines like the first big laugh in the play ‘there’s one thing to be said for masturbation, you certainly don’t have to look your best’ may bring the house down, but at the same time, it reminds us of the disgust previous generations were encouraged to feel about their bodies.
Like many minority groups, everyone uses humour as a self-defence mechanism, in particular the outrageous, effeminate Emory (James Holmes) and Bernard (Greg Lockett) who, as the token African-American, takes on the chin insults that would make any human rights commission wince. And then of course, there is the birthday- boy himself, the laid-back, quietly vicious Harold (Mark Gatiss), who appears half way through the play and has developed the toughest armour of all. When upbraided by his host for being stoned and late, Harold counters: “What I am is a 42-year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show my face to the world, it’s no-one’s god-damned business but my own. How are you this evening?”
Strong support is provided by: Daniel Boys as Michael’s easy-going best friend Donald, Ben Mansfield and Nathan Nolan as Larry and Hank (possibly the most easily recognisable and truthfully portrayed gay couple in the play).
By the box office is a notice warning patrons that the production contains smoking, flashing lights … and a topless cowboy. As the latter, Jack Dergess is Emory’s splendidly dim-witted, decorative ‘gift’ to Harold, whilst John Hopkins brings well-controlled angst to the role of the fundamentally straight Alan.
With the arrival of Trumpery and the re-emergence of the right wing, the play serves as a reminder that the rights of many human groups, including the LBGT community, are as vulnerable as ever. And maybe The Boys in the Band is a tad ‘dated’ – but then, so is A Doll’s House.
The Boys in the Band – Daniel Boys, Jack Derges, Mark Gatiss, Ben Mansfield. Photo: Darren Bell