“Being in drag is just a bit of harmless fun”
Perhaps catering to its audience a little too much, Lord Arthur’s Bed arrives at the King’s Head theatre pub promising “nudity and scenes of gay sex”. Given the intimate space one might expect a few of the beige mac brigade showing up, but there is much more to this play than titillation, indeed there’s only one point where these two facets actually coincide very briefly.
Newly civil-partnered Donald and Jim discover that their apartment has an extraordinary history, and decide to re-enact this story for us. It was previously inhabited by Lord Arthur Clinton and his wife Stella back in 1868: all was not was it seemed though as when Stella and her friend Fanny were arrested at the theatre, they were revealed to actually be Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, they were both cross-dressers. A scandalous trial then ensued which shocked the nation, yet it has not achieved the same infamy as Oscar Wilde’s similar legal exploits which happened 25 years later. Set against this tale, is the relationship of Donald and Jim themselves, and we flick between the two narratives throughout the action.
Spencer Charles Noll (Donald) and Ruaraidh Murray (Jim) do extremely well in portraying a bewildering array of characters in telling the story, showing off some strong vocal work, but it is initially quite confusing, especially as both men dip in and out of characters at breakneck speed, so it was sometimes hard to work out exactly who was being played. But the story of Stella and Fanny is an engaging one, and the tale of their trial for sodomy is very illuminating on the social and sexual attitudes of the time.
Less successful for me was the counter-balancing story of Don and Jim. Their relationship did not convince, mainly because the characters barely have time to breathe after their introduction to us before rushing headlong into the series of impersonations that make up the story-telling. We’re expected to care about these men, despite knowing so little about them, by the time their story is fleshed out more at the end, it’s too little too late.
Noll is very good with a range of expansive, comic turns as some of the more extravagant characters of the story, but also finds a touching gentleness in his portrayal of Stella, making the pivotal revealing nude scene is genuinely heartbreaking. And whilst Murray does a fine job in playing the repressed, closeted banker Jim, it is hard to believe that someone who is so uncomfortable with himself and his sexuality could maintain a long-term relationship, never mind actually commit to a civil partnership, with another man. Ironically, it is this conflict that comes up with the best scene of the play though, with Jim vocalising his conflicting emotions and questioning how much progress has really been made.
Hitching the more interesting historical story to the underdeveloped modern-day travails of Donald and Jim has the unfortunate effect of almost trivialising what, for me, was the most engaging part of the play, and it seems a shame that the story couldn’t have focused more on what is an interesting, and relatively unknown, part of gay history. Working on an undecorated stage with just a bed and one dress sharply focuses the attention on the acting and here, both men acquit themselves extremely well with impressive, wide-ranging performances. But whereas its short running time means that Lord Arthur’s Bed never outstays its welcome, it also results in neither aspect of this play being mined to its full potential.