The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley’s brutal, swinging Sixties comedy, arrives at West Yorkshire Playhouse this month as part of a national tour. Originally staged in 1968, Adam Penford helms a bold revival featuring a cast of famous names from stage and screen.
It’s Harold’s birthday. Michael, an insecure and recovering alcoholic, hosts a party in his ostentatious Manhattan flat. He books a male escort as a surprise to lift Harold’s spirits, whilst inviting a number of gay friends to enjoy the show. The party is in full swing when straighter-than-straight school friend Alan drops in with a mysterious problem. As the party drown themselves in booze, Michael initiates a cruel game of dare, with each of them phoning up an old flame to confess their unspoken love.
In the late Sixties, The Boys in the Band must have been something of a revelation to straight-laced audiences. The play presents gay characters whose sexuality is a mere aspect of their whole character as opposed to, in those days, being the defining element. Crowley’s script is rich in characterisation, offering everything from the butch to the effeminate, the young to the old and the kind to the cruel. This may be a show about gay culture in the late Sixties, but that’s only the half of it. Today it plays more like a study of complex modern relationships, examining how people care for themselves and tolerate others. Drug addiction, self-loathing, self-denial, racism, fear of ageing – these are all universal concerns which Crowley has invested into a complex world of Sixties gay subculture. This isn’t a play about sex, it’s about the self.
Whilst The Boys in the Band is a reasonably serious play with bleak moments, it offers a ride of laughs along the way. An outrageous performance by James Holmes, as effeminate Emory, vamps up every gay stereotype that came before. The character is irresistibly camp and played so effusively that he upstages most scenes with his flapping manoeuvres and eccentricities. John Hopkins is equally brilliant as the stiff antithesis; the literal straight man of the piece, with one of the funniest opening lines seen in modern theatre. Hopkins plays the role like MadMen’s Don Draper, with more than a little passing resemblance.
A huge draw to the show is Mark Gatiss, whose background in black comedy has garnered numerous awards. With a penchant for the grotesque, Gatiss’ aloof, lounge lizard performance as Harold is engaging and intense, whilst also light of touch. Gatiss is a master of the microexpression, offering a wry, sedate smile beneath a pair of outrageous sunglasses. He’s always doing something interesting, even when sitting still, evidencing that some of the best acting is, in fact, reacting to the actions of others. Playing stupid isn’t easy and Jack Derges shines as the midnight cowboy escort, slowly becoming more stoned throughout the piece. His lapdog servility to Gatiss is a neat touch, reducing a hulking prostitute to a household pet in later scenes.
Less comedic characters offer a little more pathos. Ian Hallard is bright and intense as Michael, lightly veiling the character’s low self-esteem and troubles. An ambiguous character from the start, Michael is played with more sympathy that the character probably deserves and is ultimately likable, despite his manipulative cruelty. Nathan Nolan is particularly charming as Hank and is one of the few upbeat and content characters of the piece, offering some glimmers of hope for the future. Daniel Boys as Donald is pleasantly centered, playing the role with a naturalism which is a perfect counter to some of the wilder personas on stage. Greg Lockett delivers an energetic performance as Bernard, a character who is countering racism and homophobia in a double dose, whilst Ben Mansfield’s Larry is one of the most timeless characters of the piece. There is a sense you could lift him out of the Sixties and drop in into a contemporary setting without any jarring anachronism.
Adam Penford’s direction is flighty, fast paced and full of stage business. Details abound, particularly in the design which evokes the sunburst oranges and avocado greens of the period. There are future echoes of Abigail’s Party in the production, complete with the forced joviality of an awkward party atmosphere. Knowingly kitsch, the play is overseen from on high by numerous glamour shots of Bette Davis and Judy Garland. The manner in which the portraits are lit alludes to illuminated icons or religious stations; presenting the flat as a place of worship towards unobtainable perfection.
The Boys in the Band is a brutally funny play with a wicked side. The dialogue shines in this pacy revival, offering catty dialogue which bites to the bone with superb performances. Some of the play’s bitchier elements may seem a little dated and insensitive now, but as a period piece and a window onto a community which was finally finding a proud voice, it’s a bold statement about tolerance, understanding and self-acceptance. The Boys in the Band may be downbeat in its resolution, however a modern audience can view the episode with more optimism than the play originally offered, secure in the knowledge that attitudes were changing sooner than its characters may have thought.
Cast: Daniel Boys, Jack Derges, Mark Gatiss, Ian Hallard, James Holmes, John Hopkins, Ben Mansfield, Nathan Nolan, Paul Kendrick Director: Adam Penfold Writer:
Mart Crowley Theatre: West Yorkshire Playhouse Duration: 135 minutes Dates: Monday 14th to Saturday 19th November 2016.