Sunday, 16 September 2012

Theatre review: Passing By

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This review is of the first public performance (of only eight in total) with the press being invited tomorrow.

Paired with Hindle Wakes in the Sunday-Tuesday slot at the Finborough is another play whose initial impact was probably a lot more radical than it seems in 2012. Best known for Bent, Martin Sherman tells a very different kind of gay story in Passing By, an unconventional romantic comedy-drama whose protagonists spend most of their time in bed together, but not in quite the way that might sound. It's 1972 and Toby (Steven Webb) is an unfit, neurotic New York artist enjoying less than stellar success in his career. He meets Simon (Alex Felton) at a cinema, and they have a one-night stand. Giving the show a bit of a belated Olympic tie-in, Simon is a bronze medal-winning diver, physically fit and, in contrast with Toby, on the surface at least appears to be pretty untroubled. But having only recently come to New York he finds his hotel room lonely and seeks out Toby for company, not realising that a less-than welcome reason will soon have them spending even more time together.

Sherman's one-act play provides a lot of opportunities for the two actors to come up with comic business. Webb kicks off with a lot of physical comedy and a nice line in New Yorker paranoia. When the two discover they've both contracted Hepatitis, a guilty Toby offers Simon a bed in his apartment to convalesce. Here Felton gets his chance to join in; usually-fit people make the worst patients, and Simon's confident façade turns into hissy fits as his body refuses to behave as he expects it to.

If Passing By is, as the poster says, groundbreaking, it's probably in the casual way an often screwball, odd-couple romantic comedy gets transposed into a gay context. Its matter-of-factness, in a time when the characters often mention they'd get arrested if they kissed in the street, is quite bold in its way and refreshingly optimistic - many a gay play written decades later still gets crushed under the weight of the chip on its shoulder. But Andrew Keates' production also makes a good case for the play today in its own right. In among the humour emerges a couple we grow fond of, and a bittersweet story of two people whose lives aren't quite in the right place for them to work out together.

Passing By by Martin Sherman is booking in repertory until the 25th of September at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes straight through.

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