Paul T Davies reviews Martin Sherman’s play Gently Down The Stream directed by Sean Mathias now playing at London’s Park Theatre.
Gently Down The Stream.
18 February 2019
Beau lives quietly in London, a gay man of senior years, when a casual pick up on a new website called Gaydar leads him to Rufus, a younger man with a “daddy” fixation and a love of early and mid twentieth century music and culture. Beau is a cocktail pianist, a mixture of Brooklyn and the Deep South, who accompanied Mabel Mercer, a now largely forgotten nightclub singer, but who is an idol of Rufus. They begin a relationship, lasting years, but just as Beau opens his heart and life up to love, Rufus meets Harry. But this is no tragic tale of lost love and the loneliness of the older homosexual. In the memories of Beau, playwright Martin Sherman has crafted a beautiful play of gay history, and it’s acted brilliantly by a cast lovingly directed by Sean Mathias.
Jonathan Hyde is wonderful as Beau, but there is no faded Southern tragic grandeur here, he is dignified, elegant, a beacon of pain and also love and possibilities. Always expecting things to end badly for the gay man, his monologues reveal a lifetime of homophobia and oppression, leading finally to equality and inner peace. His first love is killed in arson attack on a gay club in New Orleans, a real incident now forgotten, that Sherman restores to gay history, his second dies of AIDS. No wonder Beau is reluctant to love, but Hyde skilfully takes us through his vulnerability and pride, and the possibilities of love.
Ben Allen is equally excellent as Rufus, and it’s a tribute to the writing and to the actors that a relationship of genuine affection is portrayed so well. Much younger, and “low level bi-polar”, which provides challenges to their relationship, Beau gives Rufus freedom, and consequently he meets Harry, a performance artist. This part could have been under developed, but Sherman develops it well and Harry Lawtey grabs it with both hands, skilfully transposing the part from self-obsessed artist to loving father. To demonstrate how far we have come, Beau gives Rufus away to Harry on their wedding day, and genuine love and affection grows among the three characters. When the play ends, “Uncle” Beau is holding their daughter, a symbol of the wonder and power of “alternative”, (though more and more mainstream), families.
In places, Rufus’ questioning of the artists Beau knew and worked with necessitates a little too much exposition, designed to educate and provide effective links in the scene transitions, but there are many compensations. The nursery rhyme “Row row row your boat gently down the stream” provides a beautiful anecdote from the Second World War, a time when gay men and women were, at least, tolerated by the authorities, who needed bodies to be in strategic places. . (The backlash was harsh on both sides of the Atlantic once the war was over.) When Beau sings the song to the child in his arms at the end, it’s very hard not to be deeply moved.
Don’t be fooled by the word gently in the title. It may not have the epic sweep and ambition of The Inheritance or Angels in America, but Sherman’s economical play still packs an effective punch or two. It’s sublime and beautiful and a piece to be savoured.
Until 16 March 2019