★★★★ | Boys In The Band

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“There’s one thing to be said about masturbation: you certainly don’t have to look your best”

What was shocking to American theatre audiences in 1968 (and cinema goers in 1970 when the film was made) isn’t going to be daring or titillating anymore. The only thing that’s shocking is that viewers less than 50 years ago would be so outraged by a play about a group of gay men having a party with a lasagne and salad instead of Crystal Meth.  So what does ‘The Boys in the Band’ have to offer to the contemporary viewer? The answer is that the issues facing the men are scarily pertinent, still. The play came under fire from some for its negative portrayal of gay men but there’s something chillingly familiar about these boys.

Uptight materialist Michael (Ian Hallard) has a drink and spending problem, although he’s currently on the wagon from the booze. He’s hosting a birthday party in his New York apartment for waspish self-proclaimed ‘pock-marked fairy Jew’ Harold (played by Hallard’s real life husband Mark Gattiss). Camp and flamboyant Emery has hired a muscular hooker as a gift. Soon to be divorced father of two, Hank is trying to make his relationship work within the constraints of monogamy whilst his partner Larry’s has a distinct inability to keep it in his pants in a world where sex is freely available. Bernard is struggling with the casual racist jibes of his friends and bookish Donald (Daniel Boys) is undergoing analysis to help him come to terms with being gay.

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I don’t know about you but these are a lot like the people in my social circle. Issues with drugs and alcohol, poor self-esteem, self-hatred, shame, looking down on effeminate gays, cruising the saunas too much, open-relationships versus monogamy versus the compromise of the odd threesome here and there? The boys of 1968 might have had different drugs and clothes and lived in a more oppressive society but the songs remain the same.

It’s a funny play, starting with a sit-com-like first act where a random heterosexual re-surfaces from Michael’s past and lands at the party like a fly in the ointment. There are one-liners that pack a punch and Gattiss is the master of the arch eyebrow movement and gives a seemingly effortless performance as Harold.  Act Two is darker and becomes a sub ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ as the men get steadily more drunk and play a caustic party game. The climax is poignant and dark in equal measures and there are some deeply affecting moments.

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Despite the odd patch where the script is heavy-handed, shows its age and the occasional clunky plot device flails, overall this is a great play and a worthwhile revival with a triumphant staging from director Adam Penfold. Well worth a visit.

After the run at The Park Theatre in London the play moves to Manchester from the 3rd to the 6th of November, Brighton from the 8th to the 12th and Leeds from the 14th to the 19th of November.

 

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