Jonathan Harvey's 1993 play for the Bush, Beautiful Thing, went on to two West End runs and a national tour. After the slight disappointment of his earlier composition Babies at the Royal Court last year, hopes were understandably high for his latest work. Boom Bang-A-Bang was rapturously received on its first night, and goes some way towards assuaging fears about what the rock world calls "the difficult second album syndrome", but Harvey still has some tightening up to do.
The setting is Lee's Kentish Town flat; the date, Eurovision night 1995; the event, his first Eurovision party since the death of his lover Michael. The air of joyous campery which surrounds the Song Contest (and which proved unable to sustain Tim Luscombe's play a couple of years ago) is used here to leaven the hang-ups of the half-dozen guests at what seems to be a "bring your own crisis" party: the inanely babbling Roy's drug problem, Nick and Tania's stressed-out relationship and Lee's own excessive mourning, to name but a few.
Harvey seems to have taken on board criticisms about his lightness in the plot department, perhaps too much so. Boom Bang-A-Bang mixes personal and interpersonal difficulties, an air of elegiac comedy à la My Night With Reg (a debt tacitly acknowledged by the presence of Kevin Elyot's playscript on the coffee-table) and outright farce - midway through the first act a bout of loudly pyrotechnical fun suggests that the play's title does not just refer to Lulu's 1969 Euro-ditty.
Director Kathy Burke enjoys all these veins, and integrates them as seamlessly as is possible, but doubts keep creeping in. It worried me, for instance, that so much of the first-night audience's laughter consisted of knowing sniggers from those in the trade about Nick's self-importance as a bit-part actor in the likes of The Bill; the gags are funny all right, but this seemed to me to be sailing perilously close to the reefs of coterie writing.
Amongst the actors, Gary Love as Steph has the hardest job, in reconciling his character's malicious taste for shit-stirring at Lee's expense with a sincere concern and affection for him. Francis Lee relishes every off-his-head moment as Ecstasy-fiend Roy, and Karl Draper struggles manfully as Nick not to get too precious by three-quarters.
Jane Hazlegrove gives the most completely successful performance as Wendy, apparently Lee's sister by adoption (the script leaves this point nicely under-elucidated), whose particular cross is that of her sexuality within a triangular relationship. I am loath to say that Harvey still writes palpably better about sexuality than other issues, but that suspicion continues to lurk.
Despite all these reservations, and lacking as it does the air of sentimental affirmation which made Beautiful Thing such a feel-good experience, Boom Bang-A-Bang is a greatly enjoyable play, but the full realisation of Jonathan Harvey's promise remains tantalisingly just over the next hill.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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