The Theatreguide.London Review
Boys In The Band
Vaudeville Theatre February 2017
Alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) irresistibly funny and intensely dramatic, Mart Crowley's 1968 play gets the excellent forty-ninth anniversary production it well deserves.
The distance of years barely lessens its power while offering, by reflection, an image of the time and place in which it was written.
A group of homosexual men gather for one's birthday party. Perhaps a little too obviously chosen as a cross section – there's one straight-acting one, one flaming queen, one Jew, one Catholic, one black guy, and so on – they're bonded by real friendship and by their shared experience as social outsiders.
But then the surprise arrival of a very straight and square homophobe generates cracks in the group's unity. Largely to attack the outsider, the host drives the others through some self-exposing and humiliating games, in the process exposing his own neurotic unhappiness and self-hatred most fully.
Now, there's an elephant in the room, but I'll get to him in a little while.
The comedy of the play lies largely in the harmlessly bitchy comments the group toss around when things are going well and the closer-to-the-bone zingers they resort to when things turn nasty.
The drama comes when Crowley guides us past the stereotypes he set up to see each of the men as individuals coping or failing to cope with the deep unhappiness of their lives.
Director Adam Penford and an excellent cast find all the play's humour and seriousness, and I have only minor cavils with any of the characterisations and performances.
I think, for example, that the role of Emory, the most effeminate of the group, was written to be a very proud and self-aware man who has chosen to play the flaming queen just to thumb his nose at the world.
(That at least is how Cliff Gorman played him in the still-sharply-remembered 1968 Broadway production and 1970 film).
Here, James Holmes plays him as simply and naturally very effeminate. While that works, I think it deprives the character of depth and also weakens the power of his eventual collapse, since he has less of a distance to fall.
In the central role of Michael, Ian Hallard takes a little too long to let us glimpse the bitter self-disgust beneath the glib exterior, so his turning on the others is more of a surprise than it should be.
Hallard has also been directed or allowed to play almost all of his lines face-front, constantly threatening to break the reality by turning away from whoever he's speaking to and aiming all his charm or nastiness directly at the audience.
Acting honours go to Mark Gatiss as the cynical observer (and birthday boy) Harold. With a comedian's perfect instincts, Gatiss knows exactly how to time and deliver a pointed attack or understated but wicked commentary.
With Harold given most of the best bitchy wit, Gatiss effortlessly makes sure all his moments score.
Back to that elephant. The portrait of gay men as neurotic, self-hating and desperately wishing they were straight is very un-PC by today's standards.
But it is exactly that picture – guiding mainstream audiences away from even worse stereotypes to the recognition that homosexuals were subject to the same sorts of insecurities and pains, and were therefore as worthy of sympathy as 'normal' people – that made The Boys In The Band revolutionary in the world of a half-century ago.
It is a testament to Mart Crowley's courage and sensitivity that, even in our supposedly more enlightened age, the play has lost little of its power to move as well as amuse.
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