The Theatreguide.London Review
Trafalgar Studios Autumn 2006
Martin Sherman's 1979 drama was a revelation in both its subject matter and its dramaturgy.
Set in 1930s Germany, it reminded us that homosexuals were as much a target of the Nazis as Jews (though they were generally worked to death rather than gassed), and it was one of the first mainstream plays to be built around thoroughly sympathetic gay characters.
Theatrically, it has two very strong acting roles and one unforgettable scene in which two gay prisoners, forced to stand at attention at opposite sides of the stage, talk their way through an imagined sex act that satisfies both of them.
Inevitably, some of the play's power has waned as a quarter-century of changes in theatre and culture have made it not quite so revolutionary.
But, as this new production by Daniel Kramer movingly proves, it still has a strong emotional hold on an audience.
The play is built around Max, a hedonistic German homosexual first seen revelling in that brief period of open debauchery in 1930s Berlin (the same period as the musical Cabaret, and indeed a couple of early scenes here play like out-takes from the musical).
The climate changes almost overnight, and Max spends much of the first act running from the Nazis with his lover.
They're caught, the lover is killed in a particularly shocking scene, and the rest of the play shows Max in a prison camp, bonding with another gay prisoner.
But the play is not just a documentary of Nazi atrocities. Its core is Max's spiritual growth, as we see, long before he does, that he is far less selfish and far more capable of love than he realises.
(There is ultimately something soft and sentimental in Sherman's image of a man growing through suffering; and in a play that repeatedly asserts that survival is not a selfish act, you may find - as I do - the ending a too-easy romantic cop-out. But if the play does sometimes stoop to easy tugs at the emotions, there is no denying that it does reach them.)
Certainly Alan Cumming captures and conveys all of Max's emotional journey, with a particular success in letting us see depths in the character that he himself is not aware of.
He is matched by a very impressive debut by Chris New as his fellow prisoner, and there are strong cameos by Kevin Trainor as his Berlin lover, Richard Bremmer as a sympathetic drag queen and Hugh Ross as an older, more discreet homosexual.
Two small directorial criticisms: the mental sex scene isn't quite as effective as it could have been had the men been further apart and more rigidly at attention, and it is surely a mistake to make all the Nazi characters so camp.
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