"Seven men showing their willies" came the cynical word from New York on Terrence McNally's Tony award-winning 1994 play. Manchester's Library Theatre, where Love! Valour! Compassion! is receiving its European première, utilises the coy come-on line: "Contains nudity and explicit language". Well, yes: a full complement of 14 buttocks are eventually shown, with the occasional full-frontal moment earlier – and surely Danny Teeson creates that glistening "just been skinny-dipping in the lake" look not by wetting his impressive physique but by oiling it. However, this is anything but a sordid parade of degeneracy to outrage the moral crusaders. The title is not in the least ironic.
McNally, as the programme notes acknowledge, writes about what he knows. This is an example of that already recognisable sub-genre, the gay country-house play (or film): in this case seven, later eight men spend three holiday weekends together over the course of a summer at the upstate New York house of one of them, a successful – nay, legendary – choreographer, and his blind younger partner. Naturally, their ranks include an obsessive aficionado of obscure Broadway musicals; naturally, there is a smidgen of extramural dalliance; naturally, at least one of their number (two, in fact) are, in McNally's discreet euphemism, "not well". This dramatic field has been over-ploughed in recent years, and usually yields up nothing but rocks.
McNally's play is a rare, touching exception, and I admit that I cannot readily identify why this should be. On the face of it, the author's strategy is no different from that in his Lips Together, Teeth Apart, which I found so unsatisfying at Derby last year: he brings a group of characters together in isolation and lets them get on with it. True, Roger Haines's production is almost flawlessly attuned to the play's interpersonal dynamics, and true, he also has actors of the calibre of Nicolas Chagrin (as choreographer and host Gregory) and Stewart Permutt (as the garrulous "gay imp" Buzz, perversely ready even to watch a TV re-run of the dreadful musical version of Lost Horizon because "I never miss a chance to watch Liv Ullmann sing and dance"). But the crucial difference is probably that the heart of this play is closer to McNally's own: "I think," he writes in a foreword amid a catalogue of possible reasons for the play's composition, "I wanted to tell my friends how much they've meant to me." These are people coping with fidelity as well as infidelity; with living with HIV as well as dying with it; with self-love, self-loathing, and all stations in between. I repeat, the title is not at all ironic. There is no reason why we should care about these characters other than their obvious humanity, yet over three and a quarter hours we continue to do so, deeply.
This review would not be complete without acknowledging a fine pair of performances by Edmund Kente as expatriate English twins, the one almost a Jacobean malcontent, the other Dot Cotton in chinos.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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