The Boys in the Band
It’s OK to be gay, but Culture Editor JOE BATES finds a gay play which is refreshingly about a lot more than just that.
ADC Theatre, 14th–18th February, 7.45 pm, £6-10
Directed by Guy Woolf
The Boys in the Band is a surprisingly tricky play to get to grips with. The dichotomy between camp, superficial emotion and deep feeling that runs throughout is a subtle knot to unpick, particularly whilst maintaining the necessary moments of comedy. But Guy Woolf’s motley crew did an impressive job, despite a rocky start.
The opening of the play is, counterintuitively, its hardest moment. Its relative lack of intensity asks a great deal of its actors – the underlying tensions in the group must be brought out despite the apparent superficiality of the narrative. This proved too large a burden for the first scene of the first night. A lack of energy and presence meant that gauche lines such as ‘ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves’ felt too straightforward, too sincere. I was left wondering whether the play simply had a bad script.
The play picked up, however, as more actors came on: the strongest element of the production was the excellently directed group scenes. The conversation felt extremely comfortable and natural, in part because there was often more than one conversation going on at once, and key lines floated into the foreground with impressively feigned spontaneity.
The arrival of Alan (Mark Wartenberg) was particularly well done. He dominated the stage – the fear caused by his “straightness'” (both sexual and social) was palpable, and Wartenberg’s stage presence was instrumental in bringing this contradiction to life. Indeed, it was that elusive ability to exude presence that distinguished certain actors. Both Larry’s (Alex Gomar) confident assertion and Hank’s (Jack Hudson) reticent smouldering were underpinned by an impressive ability to project character outside of dialogue.
I am aware that, at this point in the review, I have barely mentioned the play’s subject – the tribulations of homosexuality – or its well recreated setting – 60s New York. But that is, more than anything, a credit to both the production and the script. It is a gay play that is not fundamentally about being gay, but about the tension between what we choose to reveal socially and what we hide.
As a result the small slips of character or direction were unusually irksome. The unnamed cowboy (James Lanaghan) was played too much for laughs – his combination of sexuality and stupidity felt entirely two-dimensional. Emory (Amrou Al-Kadhi) could have been unpacked more before his final monologue.
The evening was not perfect: accents slipped, some of the more sexual physicality felt too rehearsed and it took too long to really warm up. But given how much it improved over the evening, I suspect subsequent performances will have real punch.
In a way, it’s a shame that this has been publicised as a play that is ‘gay’ and ‘sixties’. It’s a lot more than that, and I am sure that subsequent evenings will reveal an ever more detailed exploration of character.