Showing upstairs at the Dominion Theatre’s Studio (you may hear the strains of Queen whilst We Will Rock You wows the main auditorium) is a new play by Damien Tracey – Faster Higher Stronger Straighter.
The impending Winter Olympics in Sochi have grabbed headlines worldwide for all the wrong reasons. With Putin’s immoral and barbaric new law banning “gay propaganda”, LGBT people in Russia have found themselves living in a new Cold War in their home country.
Damien Tracey’s intelligently conceived and beautifully characterised play brings this issue sharply into focus. It does so by neatly contrasting two interweaving stories. One follows couple Darragh and Russell in London as they prepare for the London Olympics of 2012 whilst Darragh’s apparently homophobic father John arrives from Ireland. The other traces the story of gay athlete Pahval whose lover Yakhov is the son of a member of the Russian police – one of Putin’s goons.
What works so well about Faster Higher Stronger Straighter is that it uses a series of surprises that neatly confront our preconceptions and invert them. To mention the cleverest would invoke spoilers, but it’s hopefully not too big a revelation to say that the contrast between the two fathers – both set up to be homophobic – is very effective and adds heartfelt poignancy to the piece.
Whilst the sexy and flamboyant Russell and the uptight Darragh (Chris Aylmer) are very different characters, the arrival of John sparks a series of events that sends their relationship in unexpected directions. There’s a lot of humour in this story too. Charlie Allen’s larger-than-life Russell is a fabulous creation, whilst Chris McCalphy is hilarious as the fish-out-of-water John; their sassy versus deadpan deliveries leaving Chris Aylmer’s Darragh grounded in the middle. A beautifully played moving scene between McCalphy and Aylmer rightly drew a spontaneous round of applause.
In contrast, the Russian story is as bleak as the weather there (how do UKIP account for that?) Living in fear of their livelihoods and lives, Yakhov (Harry Jardine) and Pahval (Naeem Hayat) face the horrifying dilemma of staying in Russia and fighting for their rights or leaving their country of origin. But what if they want different things? Carsten Hayes is suitably shady and sinister as Vladislav, Yakhov’s father, complicit in the fate of some of his son’s LGBT activist friends. The humour here is limited to uneasy sarcasm as Tracey deftly draws neat contrasts between the two most recent Olympic events, and the attitudes towards gay people in the countries that hosted them.
Damien Tracey is a very good playwright of enormous promise, and he could become a great one if he learns to kill his babies. Some of the scenes repeat themselves in different ways or go on for too long. This may be because Tracey has an excellent ear for dialogue, but he tends towards over-writing. This in turn upsets the pacing of the play. The tightest scenes held the audience enraptured, but there were moments that sagged, and a cull of some of the material would benefit the production. Minor criticisms are that Chris Aylmer’s construction costume wouldn’t look anachronistic in a play set in 1910, and a punchier title that more strongly conveyed the subject matter could be considered if, as it deserves, the show enjoys a longer run.
The play also goes out of its way to avoid mentioning the biggest foe and threat to gay people – religion. The complicity of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in sabotaging the lives (in different ways) of all the characters featured in the show, and countless millions of others, has to be held to account. It’s mentioned, briefly, but with the suggestion of an equally complicit state: thus organized religion becomes the elephant in the room.
Despite a few problems, Faster Higher Stronger Straighter scores highly because of the emotional punch it delivers thanks to some great writing and nuanced performances. It is an impassioned defence of love, and a clarion call to celebrate it. We left a little misty-eyed, we don’t mind admitting. Go and support this piece of new writing.
There is a collection for the Russian LGBT Network, a charitable organization dedicated to helping LGBT Russians.