"You're warning me? Me? I'm Harold, and I'm the one person you don't warn, Michael, because you and I are alike. And we tread very carefully around each other because we both play each other's game too well. I know this game you're playing. I know it very well and I play it very well. You play it very well too, but you know what? I'm the only one who's better at it than you are. I can beat you at it, so don't push me. I'm. Warning. You!"What actor (or actress) worth their salt would not love the chance to deliver a little monologue of this order?
Such is the predominant role that 'Harold' plays in The Boys in the Band, that all the other characters - including the increasingly cruel "Michael" and his alcohol-fuelled "party games" around which much of the action revolves - at times appear to be the "chorus" awaiting his acerbic solos. It is a gem of a part [like a "meaner Oscar Wilde", as one critic puts it], that Mr Mark Gatiss took to with brilliant relish in the new revival of this ground-breaking gay classic we went to see at our local theatre The Park on Thursday night.
A surprisingly successful off-Broadway play that celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, it was, of course, made into an equally radical movie by William Friedkin that has imbued its catty repartee into gay bons mots to this day. On seeing the film at its showing at the Conway Hall five years ago, I wrote:
Written for the theatre in 1967 by Mart Crowley, The Boys in the Band just about pre-dated the Stonewall Riots, yet was equally as ground-breaking in its uncompromising subject matter - the lives, loves, friendships and bitchiness of a group of gay men in New York. With its (shocking at the time) scenes of man-on-man kissing, loving relationships, sex, swearing and matter-of-fact discussion of gay matters, it was controversial - to say the least - particularly when it became more widely known thanks to its 1970 film adaptation.
Needless to say, the timing of the release of such an excoriatingly bitter and twisted black comedy met with vocal opposition from within the gay world as well as from the usual suspects (the god-botherers, moralists and bigots, particularly in America). Gay rights activists tore into the self-loathing and bitterness of some of the characters, vilifying the play as concentrating on the "negative" rather than the "positive" aspects of gay life, and internalising the hatred rather than tackling society's homophobia.
All very worthy sentiments. However, this is only to be expected when people who are fighting for their rights encounter a situationist portrayal of what, in fact, was actually "real life" for many better-off urban gays.
In my opinion, much as in other comparable set-piece bitch-fests as The Women or Abigail's Party, the joy is not in its attempts to "represent reality" but to explore the interplay between the characters and their ultimate attempts to destroy each other as part of some self-revealing "game".
Unpleasant secrets and spiteful comments are bandied about by all the characters in turn, as alcohol, marijuana and the unwelcome presence of a mysterious character from our host Michael's past all have an impact on what might otherwise have been a simple (read "camp") celebration of the birthday of the group's Queen Bee, Harold.
Yet in doing so, the brilliance of the writer's creations comes to the fore - the dialogue is superb, the one-liners are eminently quotable, and despite several sharp intakes of breath, as a whole this is a fabulous (and genuinely "classic") masterpiece of theatre, writ large...
- Michael: "What is he - a psychiatrist or a hairdresser?"Donald: "Actually he's both. He shrinks my head and then combs me out."
- Emory: "Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?"
- Michael: "There's one thing to be said about masturbation: you certainly don't have to look your best."
- Harold: "Your lips are turning blue. You look like you've been rimming a snowman."
- Michael: [about Emory's falling down] "A falling down drunk nellie queen."Harold: "Well, THAT'S the pot calling the kettle 'beige'."
- Tex: "I lost my grip doing my chin ups and fell on my heels and twisted my back."Emory: "You shouldn't wear heels when you do chin ups!"
- Michael: "You're stoned and you're late. You were supposed to arrive at this location at eight thirty dash nine o'clock."Harold: "What I am, Michael, is a 32 year-old, ugly, pock marked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show my face to the world, it's nobody's god damned business but my own. And how are you this evening?"
The Park Theatre's production, directed by Adam Penford, flies in the face of detractors who criticise its somewhat dated observations on sexuality and race - and, in sticking entirely to the original dialogue (and fantastically late-60s design and fashion aesthetic), merely proves what a brilliant play this was and still is. The excellent cast help in that regard too, of course!
Apart from the tour-de-force performance by Mr Gatiss, his husband-in-real-life Ian Hallard was superbly malevolent as 'Michael' [even if his breakdown at the play's climax maybe failed to evoke quite the gut-wrenching desperation of the screen portrayal by the late Kenneth Nelson]; James Holmes was brilliantly funny and poignant in his portrayal of the "butterfly in heat" 'Emory', who gets most of the laughs; and the rather gorgeous Jack Derges was spot-on as the dumb but charming 'Cowboy Tex', with his naive misunderstandings and cheerful embrace of his role in life as merely "eye candy" for the amusement of his "betters".
Needless to say, the fact he was bestowed upon him as a birthday gift from 'Emory' provided 'Harold' with another timeless observation:
"Oh yes. It's too bad about this poor boy's face. It's tragic. He's absolutely cursed. How could his beauty ever compare with my soul? And although I've never seen my soul, I understand from my mother's Rabbi that it's a knock-out. I, however, cannot seem to locate it for a gander. And if I could, I'd sell it in a flash, for some skin-deep, transitory, meaningless beauty."Michael's best friend 'Donald' is a complex, damaged-yet-ultimately-most-loyal character to capture, and the gorgeous Daniel Boys - better known to us as a singer - was real eye-opener with the depth of his ability to portray it. The bickering couple 'Hank' and 'Larry' (Nathan Nolan and Ben Mansfield) were excellent, convincingly exposing their complex relationship in a heartfelt and honest manner rarely seen in drama even today; Greg Lockett as 'Bernard' superbly exuded the pathos required of a character with the "double-whammy" of being black and gay, and still in love with the (white) son of his mother's former employers; and John Hopkins' "straight-boy-with-a-secret" [possibly] 'Alan' was adeptly indignant and vile-tempered and at the same time a transfixed observer of the outlandish downward spiral of this "gay party from hell".
It was an utterly marvellous show!
And we were not alone in thinking it...
The Boys in the Band now embarks on a UK tour, having closed at The Park tonight - appearing at Manchester's Salford Lowry Theatre from 3rd November, and taking in the Theatre Royal in Brighton and the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.