It is amazing that Jonathan Harvey's breakthrough play has not been staged professionally in London in over a decade. I feel as if I have seen a regional or student production every couple of years in the interim; it is such an appealing box-office prospect – a feelgood play about teenage gay awakening, with a perkiness and sentiment that prevent it from alienating any but the most censorious of straights – that its neglect even on the fringe is a mystery.
Having said that, hindsight has rather lessened its impact. The comedic lippiness that is the play's primary mode of operation is now a clear pre-echo of Harvey's TV sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme (the kind of television work that gives ammunition to theatre snobs); the pop-culture references to the likes of East 17 and Bob's Full House, which then drew laughter of familiarity, now elicit chuckles of nostalgia-camp.
The play's fulcrum is at the end of the first act: 15-year-old Jamie shares his bed with classmate and neighbour Ste who is taking refuge from a drunken, violent father, and the two fumblingly acknowledge their feelings for each other. Done properly, the combination of awkwardness and emotional suspense is exquisite. In Toby Frow's production, Andrew Garfield and Gavin Brocker as Jamie and Ste make all the right moves, but there is a tentative element to their physicality which prevented me from giving my own heart to them as is intended.
The linchpin of Frow's production is Sophie Stanton as Jamie's barmaid mother Sandra; she conveys exasperation and affection, or genuine hostility and harmless banter, in the same remark, and a wounding word may be defused by a self-deprecating flash of her eyes. Naomi Bentley takes full opportunity of the excess offered by the role of Leah, misfit and Mama Cass fanatic; however, Leo Bill is too weaselly and down-at-heel for the well-meaning but essentially middle-class ineffectuality of Sandra's boyfriend Tony.
Perhaps familiarity has bred contempt in me – certainly, the audience response was more than warm – but I never felt that anything was really at stake in Frow's production. Without a sense of danger or risk, the contrasting joy is also diminished, and what remains is a cosy pat on the back rather than an exultant punch in the air.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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