“The Tory party is the gayest of them all”
The National Youth Theatre originally commissioned James Graham’s Tory Boyz back in 2008 and given its success, they asked him to update the play so it could form part of their West End repertory season. To describe the Conservative Party’s attitudes towards homosexuality is a near impossibility – whilst the Same Sex Marriage Bill was admirably forced through by Cameron’s administration, the debates around it revealed huge rifts, bemoaning the encroachment of the “aggressive homosexual community” and the spectacular ‘activate the lesbian queen’ debacle – yet it has always been a party with gay members. And it is this dichotomy that Graham explores, how the compatibility of homosexuality and Conservatism has evolved over the years and whether, in this day and age, it does or should matter.
Sam (Simon Lennon) is a Tory researcher working in the busy office of an education minister. He’s out to his colleagues but with one eye on a more frontline political position in the near future, he’s more than content to keep it on the QT, much to the chagrin of his fresh-faced Labour opposite number James (Tom Prior) who is trying to coax him into the relationship that they both crave. The discovery that he is working in the same office that Ted Heath started his own career in inspires Sam to research that man and the rumours that swirled around his sexuality – scenes that we see played out in flashback – and in an additional plot, Sam also visits a secondary school to try and engage a disinterested group in politics with a weekly mock-Parliament set up, something which in turn also threatens to lead him to a stronger self-understanding.
As shown with his recent National Theatre success This House, Graham can spin the plates of multi-stranded political theatre with great aplomb and one can see the genesis of that play in here, both in structure and in subject. But this does feel like a playwright growing into his strengths though, the overall feel is too disjointed and some of the segments lack clarity for too long – director Thomas Hescott lays the initial focus of the modern-day office too strongly on Sope Dirisu’s hugely charismatic and steam-rollering chief-of-staff Nicholas, the shift in time to Heath’s childhood takes too long to register. Once it settles though, something of an elegiac beauty emerges – Heath’s repeated attempts to telephone through time to the equally fraught Sam recall the emotional resonance of The Pride, Aaron Gordon’s conflicted pupil Ray reminds us that everyone’s journey to self-acceptance is different.
The real joy comes from the maturity of the performances though. Lennon excels at suggesting the complexity of gay, northern, working-class Tory Sam’s psychological make-up; Niall McNamee is powerfully moving as the chronically repressed Heath; and Tom Prior has a lovely restraint as James, an adroit short-hand depiction of the contrasting degrees to which people feel able to be ‘out’ across the political spectrum. And Graham saves the best ‘til last with the deliciously sharp, yet utterly true point that it isn’t always about the party or the politics, it can be about the person, and that no matter the affiliation or position, there will always be some wholly odious individuals floating around the arena. Tory Boyz makes a punchy, much-welcomed addition to the West End and an assured debut for a company from whom I am sure we will hear much more. Make sure you book for their Romeo and Juliet as well to see the girlz get a fairer crack of the whip though!