Matt Crowley’s The Boys in the Band has a special place in the history of gay drama. First seen on Broadway in 1968, (where it enjoyed a long and successful run), a year before the now legendary Stonewall riots, it marks the beginning of the modern era of the battle for equality. With its internalised homophobia, self-loathing and bitchiness, it had fallen out of favour with modern, more liberated audiences. I saw the West end run of the play in the mid-1990s and thought it a museum piece. All credit to director Adam Penford and the terrific cast for restoring the play back to the canon, and, in the intimacy of the Park Theatre, it now looks like an honest portrait of gay life and a period of time, when being in the closet was the only option many gay men saw as a means of survival.
Michael is holding a birthday party for his friend Harold. In the privacy of his own apartment, the gay men can be themselves- until the arrival of his ‘straight’ friend Alan splinters Michael’s alternative family, and he forces them to play a dangerous and revealing party game in the second half, in which they score bonus points for ringing the one true love of their lives and telling him so. Ian Hallard is excellent as Michael, apparently warm and friendly at the beginning, until alcohol and bitterness causes him to lash out at life and his friends, Hallard beautifully flaying the layers of friendship away as the vicious cycle of self-loathing continues. Among the guests there is super- camp Emory, played with hilarious queeness by James Holmes, providing also poignant remembrance of teenage unrequited love in the second half. His defiance to tone down his campness nods towards the drag queens who took the police on at the Stonewall Inn. Greg Lockett is a sensitive and funny Bernard, the only black character, who at the time could be called The African Queen by his friends without any politically correct offence being taken. Nathan Nolan and Ben Mansfield are perfect as Hank and Larry, a couple struggling with Larry’s promiscuity, but revealing their love for each other during the party game.
Like Moliere’s Tartuffe, Harold is given a huge build up until he appears, (the whole of the first act here), and when he does Mark Gatiss is perfect in both appearance and character, cynically nailing (accurately) the position of gay people in the food chain of society, waspish with humour and stalking the set, knowing it will all end badly, yet friendship will survive. There’s a terrific moment when the men, free of the outside world, dance exuberantly in the living room, and the sudden appearance of straight Alan sees them throwing the closet walls up around themselves. Played by John Hopkins, Alan is an excellent study of a man tormented by his natural urges, closeted and offensive, choosing to remain so at the plays conclusion-a layered and effective performance. Jack Derges brings both physique and hilarious dumbness to Cowboy, (the Midnight Cowboy who arrives far too early), and is perhaps the happiest character in the play. Daniel Boys excels as Donald, possibly the trickiest character to portray, anxious and depressed at the beginning, his silence and steady friendship in the second half is brought out perfectly by Boys, symbolising that friendship will survive.
There is a small history of gay party plays, beginning with The Boys in the Band, and following the line through Kevin Elliot’s My Night With Reg, Mark Ravenhill’s Mother Clap’s Molly House, and this year’s Five Guys Chilling. In each the outside threats to gay life are AIDS, (it is sobering to note that of the original cast of Boys in the Band, four are known to have died of AIDS) and chemsex, with drug use devastating the gay community as much as HIV. (Although Five Guys would have benefitted hugely from the same level of character development we see at the Park Theatre.) This production, with a blistering soundtrack and an accurate design by Rebecca Brower, lovingly restores The Boys in the Band, and reveals a quiet masterpiece.