OUT IN THE OPEN
Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 20 March, 2001

Parts of Out In The Open are written by the Jonathan Harvey whose career blasted off so terrifically with Beautiful Thing several years ago. Parts are written by the Harvey more recently responsible for the crass TV sitcom Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (whose star Kathy Burke directs this production at Hampstead). Parts are by another Harvey altogether, more sombre than either. Sometimes these diverse Harveys seem to collaborate, sometimes to get under each other's feet. It is an extremely watchable but bewilderingly diffuse play.

Normally in the case of "love triangles", only two of the sides are drawn in. What we see here is the third side, in which gay "widower" Tony and young Mancunian Iggy turn out to have a partner in common. Tony's flatmate, gay alkie Kevin and brassy wannabe-lesbian wannabe-actress Monica, know but won't tell Tony; the deceased Frankie's mum Mary won't hear a word against her son, and won't let go of Tony as the repository of his memory. Over the course of a long summer weekend, on wooden decking under chilli-pepper fairy lights in a back garden in Dalston (a glorious design by Michael Taylor), these appetising complexities are played out.

A deep vein of queeny comedy runs through Harvey, but too often his jokes have all the subtlety of a puce sledgehammer. The most consistently hilarious character is drunken, ageing Rose, who spins yarns about all the celebrities she claims to have met in her pub from Julie Andrews to Badly Drawn Boy ("I knitted 'im that 'at") hilarious, but transparently unnecessary to the play and written into a single scene just so that Harvey could stick in some of his best gags. Linda Bassett gives a beautiful performance as Mary: good-hearted, compulsively garrulous and all but unable to see her own talons embedded in Tony.

It is the final phase of the play which disturbs me. It rapidly becomes apparent that Harvey has been steering Tony not so much to a point where he can move on to somewhere, but where he comprehensively (and with an unpleasantness which he at least realises) moves on from his current life. The completeness of this act of jettison, and the fact that the destination held out in the script seems only to be a pretext for the departure itself, suggest that this is Harvey's central concern in the play, and it is an unsettling one.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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