Wednesday 28 August 2013

Theatre review: The Pride

Unlike the Michael Grandage season it emulates in some ways, Jamie Lloyd's project at Trafalgar Studios didn't announce its full programme in advance. One reason given is that it enables Lloyd to decide closer to the time what to stage, and thus respond to the times. The topicality of his revival of The Pride is obvious at the curtain call, where the actors bring on "To Russia With Love" placards protesting at the recent homophobic, discriminatory laws there. Alexi Kaye Campbell's breakthrough play charts the gay experience closer to home, but its ambition lies in its scope, attempting to chronicle both the colossal changes in law and attitude towards homosexuality over the course of 50 years, but also how the ghosts of past shame can still hang over modern-day pride.

The play's conceit is to follow the story of three people as it would have turned out in 1958, and 2008. In the '50s Oliver (Al Weaver) is a children's author whose illustrator Sylvia (Hayley Atwell) introduces him to her husband Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton.) The two men have an instant attraction but while Oliver believes there'll come a time when their relationship won't be seen as shameful, Philip is defined by the opinion of the times and wishes to be something different.

Getting together is easier for their modern-day counterparts but it doesn't mean everything's rosy as when we meet the 2008 version of Oliver he's just been dumped by Philip because of his fondness for anonymous sex with men in parks. Sylvia meanwhile has gone from unloved wife to Oliver's bubbly best friend, her childless marriage to Philip replaced by a promising relationship with a randy Italian. Even outside of the issue of sexuality the 21st century seems to offer more possibilities for the characters than the 20th - the modern-day Sylvia has kept up the acting career her 1950s counterpart had to give up, and while the earlier Philip was an estate agent who could only dream of seeing the world, the 2008 version is a globe-trotting photojournalist.

Lloyd also directed the play's premiere at the Royal Court five years ago, so he brings to this revival a real knowledge of and passion for the piece, and on Soutra Gilmour's set of two-way mirrors injects a real haunting quality, to the heartbreaking 1958 sequences in particular. The playwright's ambition could have been a fatal flaw - plays that try to cover a huge scope of experience can stumble on it - but here the structure lets him get away with it, and he cleverly juxtaposes the past with the present. Notably, the secretive, shame-filled gay sex in parks that characterised a time when it was illegal, is still reflected in the time of Civil Partnerships in the out-and-proud Oliver's kink. But it shouldn't be underestimated how funny the play is, especially in its present-day sequences. Despite Oliver's frequent threats of suicide he maintains a hilariously catty back-and-forth with Sylvia, who gives as good as she gets, and Campbell's script is filled with properly hilarious, very clever one-liners on everything from Whole Foods to Grindr.

The performers are great - although there's an effeminacy to both versions of Oliver, Weaver makes them very distinct, and Hadden-Paton is a natural at these buttoned-up characters. Atwell is moving as the version of Sylvia who knows her husband's secret and wishes he could be honest with her, and warm as the sexually-liberated version; I don't really have a better compliment for her than that of the woman sitting behind me, who until the bows didn't realise both characters had been played by the same actress. And backing them up is Matthew Horne in a trio of mostly-comic roles, including an SS officer who's not quite what he first appears, and a lads'-mag editor with a heavy-handed way of showing empathy. This is an exemplary piece not just of gay theatre but of theatre in general, moving, thoughtful and often screamingly funny.

The Pride by Alexi Kaye Campbell is booking until the 9th of November at Trafalgar Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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