BURNING BLUE
King's Head Theatre, London N1
Opened 13 March, 1995

Having suffered a horrific ordeal in life does not of itself mean that you will be able to write a great play about it. For examples of writers too close to their subjects, see Tammis Day's Eclipse about recovering from alcoholism currently at the Drill Hall or the sometimes frustratingly two-dimensional Burning Blue at the King's Head.

The play, about an American naval pilot witch-hunted out of the service because of his sexuality, is based on writer D.M.W. Greer's own experiences. However moronic such a government policy may be, Greer does few favours to the campaign against it by peopling his play with characters who often struggle for two-dimensionality: the homophobe zealot investigator, his colleague who complains, "Aww, man, I always play bad cop!" but turns out to be the more human member of the team, the beloved's Baptist prejudice-parroting wife, the farmboy pilot who against all odds shows most sympathy and acceptance... these are figures from an undistinguished American teleplay, not a stage work aiming to get under the skin of a situation.

Greer's structure, too, is televisual rather than theatrical. His constant intercutting of flashback scenes cued by remarks made during investigations leads to frequent awkwardness in the staging; Antony Edridge in particular, as protagonist Dano Lynch, finds he has to turn on a sixpence between scenes of oppressive interrogation and Top Gun jockery. Director John T. Hickok does his best to pull these transitions off, but it's a grindingly uphill struggle. Aerobatics scenes (in which the four pilots sit on upright chairs in spotlights) would easily be accepted according to theatrical conventions if not for the pervasive feeling that this is a stage production trying frantically and vainly to pretend it's a screen work.

Edridge does a fine job in the central role, cultivating a quasi-Martin Sheen thousand-yard stare as events unfold around him. David Pullan as Special Agent Cokely, though, degenerates too far, too fast into a cardboard cut-out of an Aunt Sally, whose bigotry is equally clumsily countered by a handful of speeches which might as well have a neon "Author's Message" sign glowing above the speakers' heads.

The play's pivotal relationship is that of Dano not with the fellow pilot whom he desires, but with his best friend Will. In the latter role Ian Fitzgibbon is consistently over-the-top: more manically dissolute than his colleagues in the earlier scenes, his subsequent coldness towards Dano is conveyed by a jaw that looks set to fracture from crystalline fatigue. Dano and Will's ultimate reconciliation as the climax of both a plot and a performance where, so to speak, you can see the strings unfortunately had no more emotional effect upon this reviewer than to produce several stifled giggles.

It's difficult to talk about "issue" plays without seeming to comment upon the issues themselves, but the subject of sexual persecution in the forces deserves better than Greer's moral monochromatics. Too much caring, not enough crafting.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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