“You’d better show up.
‘Don’t worry I will, you’ve got my wine’”
Marking its first production in London in over 35 years, the Finborough has revived Martin Sherman’s 1972 play Passing By for a very limited run. Steven Webb’s Toby is a neurotic New Yorker, a complete klutz who’s making ends meet working in a wine shop as his artistic career stagnates. A chance encounter with former Olympic diver Simon, a lithe Alex Felton, in a cinema leads to a one-night stand but the fast-moving world of the big city, a rare spark of connection means their relationship develops into the potential for something more as something unique is shared. Exactly what is shared though is a little unexpected, with consequences that keep the pair together for some considerable time, and so what unfolds is a delicately gentle encounter between two souls each looking for something more.
On first appearance they are a totally mis-matched couple: Toby’s highly strung Woody Allen-esque persona rubs up, in more than one way, against the physical über-confidence of his far-hotter lover, but as they each begin to let their guard down, we see that even Simon has his own issues too. And over the course of the single act, Sherman has his characters dance ever closer to the possibilities of real connection through the comic haze of their enforced circumstances.
The fact of their homosexuality is simply a given here, it’s not an issue – though mentions of the realities of being out do hit home hard – and for this reason, the play is hugely noteworthy one in being the first representation of everyday gayness. But without that context, this production of Passing By doesn’t always quite maintain such resonance. The slow-build of the relationship is a little too slow in the end, the explosion of feeling in the final scenes has immense power but comes from too far left-field, it is too much of a surprise to feel dramatically honest.
Both actors excel in playing this later emotional heft and also in the opening scenes of early-morning playfulness. Webb’s natural ebullience fits the role well and Felton convinces of the deeply-held frustrations of Simon, but Andrew Keates’ production sometimes overplays the zany comedy that forms the middle of the play with ‘drunk-acting’ and ‘ill-acting’ proving occasionally difficult moments as the writing lacks a little of the driving edge to draw us deeper into the emotional wells.
The significance of Sherman’s play should not be under-estimated at all as a crucial landmark in the theatrical depiction of gay people, though this production comes close, but not quite, to demonstrating that the play itself carries that weight.