“You show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse”
It’s been almost 20 years since the last major revival of Mart Crowley’s 1968 play The Boys in the Band, a piece of writing that pre-dated the Stonewall riots and gay rights movement and indeed helped to inspire them, so there’s no doubting the importance of the play in the theatrical canon, gay or otherwise. As a piece of drama though, it’s hard not to feel that time has caught up with it somewhat, even in Adam Penfold’s expertly cast production for the Park Theatre.
In his Manhattan apartment, Michael has gathered several of his friends to help celebrate the birthday of their mutual acquaintance Harold. His best laid plans are set awry by the arrival of an uninvited guest, Michael’s former college roommate Alan to whom he has never come out. Trying to hide this amount of gayness proves an impossibility, especially given the amount of alcohol being poured, paving the way for an evening of increasing bitterness and bitchiness with the commencement of the party games.
Writing at a time when homosexuality was barely seen never mind explored, Crowley thus does a remarkable job in presenting a set of gay characters who deal with identity issues and confidence crises that resonate even today. The one leaving his wife and kids for another man; the one who wants to be in a relationship but still be able to sleep with others too; the one resigned to his role as the queen of the group; etc etc. And in the revelations that are forced out of them by Michael’s manipulations, there are some moments of real aching truth.
There’s also a huge clunking problem in the second half device that brings about all this truth-telling, no earthly reason given why this group would be complicit in the continuing malice of the game that is played for so long. Self-loathing emerges as a major theme of the play – as devastatingly essayed by Ian Hallard’s vicious Michael and Mark Gatiss’ magnificently arch Harold, a real-life couple playing out a quite different striking dynamic here – but it ends up too contrived to be as affecting as it could be. Strong work from Ben Mansfield and Nathan Nolan as a combative couple and James Holmes’ fey Emory also stands out, in what feels like a dated but nonetheless significant landmark in gay theatre.