Friday, 27 January 2023

Theatre review: The Boys Are Kissing

Theatre503 always feels like a trek to get to and from, so I don't often include it in my regular venues, but Zak Zarafshan's The Boys Are Kissing seemed like a fun premise, and proved a good bet - taking that premise and running with it, even before it adds a camp supernatural twist on top. We're in the territory of middle-class couples navigating parenting dilemmas they never expected to face, and trying to do the best for their kids in the face of cutthroat playground politics, but with a very 2023 look at sexuality and gender: 9-year-old Lucas and Samir were seen by their classmates kissing in the playground, leading to a bit of gossip among the kids and a whole lot more among their mums. The headteacher has suggested their parents discuss the incident, so Lucas' parents Sarah (Amy McAllister) and Matt (Philip Correia) visit Samir's mothers Chloe (Eleanor Wyld) and Amira (Seyan Sarvan.)

This sets up a great opening comedy of manners, as the kiss doesn't really merit much discussion, and the lesbian couple certainly don't think so - while the straight couple try to appear equally unconcerned and not come across as prejudiced.

A darker undertone comes out as Lucas' tenth birthday party approaches, and Samir gets uninvited due to pressure from the other mums, who say their kids won't be allowed to go if he does. Despite there being little to the original story other than the two boys kissing, it's widely assumed that the Asian son of a lesbian couple is the one who initiated it, and the other kids start to bully and exclude him. It also becomes apparent that this has played into the hands of the most feared PTA mum, who's angry that Amira donated LGBTQ+-friendly books to the school library, and has been looking for an excuse to have them removed.

Zarafshan and director Lisa Spirling have successfully brought to life four characters who all have both their awful and more likeable sides, contributing both to the comedy and to their appeal, from Sarvan's somewhat controlling, high-powered lawyer trying to express her genuine softer side, to Correia's sweetly awkward himbo desperately trying say he loves his son unconditionally without putting it in the crassest terms possible. It's a very well-executed modern comedy of awkwardness, but Zarafshan has a curve-ball in mind that takes us into magical realist territory: Two Cherubs (Shane Convery and Kishore Walker,) who tell us they've acted as Queer Guardians for millennia, join the action, supposedly as observers but in fact unable to stop themselves constantly interfering. They largely do this by appearing to the characters in the guise of family members or the fearsome PTA mum and trying to aggressively nudge them in the right direction.

The cherubs act as agents of chaos both in the story and outside of it, as Ian could attest to after Convery's cherub sat on his lap asking to be comforted for all the years of homophobia they'd witnessed - maybe that's why Theatre503 are doing such a cheap deal on front row seats, you might end up as part of the set. They certainly add to the sense of unpredictable fun, but I also liked the way Zarafshan uses them to expose the subtext in the WhatsApp groups that are fuelling the story in the background: When they take on another character they tend to put the most extreme sentiments they can get away with into their mouths, in the hope of exposing the nasty undertone to everything that's supposedly being said and done in the name of the children's safety; they're frustrated when this rarely gives the parents the hoped-for lightbulb moment.

For the most part The Boys Are Kissing is so confident and accomplished it's surprising it's the writer's first full-length play to be staged, but there are a few elements that show his inexperience: The transitions between comedy and the more serious points underneath it are a bit heavy-handed, particularly in the final scene where the cherubs take on two new roles, and deliver impassioned speeches that edge too often into lecturing; I think a more experienced playwright would have trusted the audience more to get the point about "will somebody please think of the children?" rarely having a positive effect on the children themselves, or at least seeded the idea more subtly around the play. But overall this is a huge hit, entertaining both in the wittily constructed dialogue and the general sense of anarchy laid on top of it. Theatre503 seems to favour very short runs with a lot of shows getting a transfer somewhere, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this production have a further life.

The Boys Are Kissing by Zak Zarafshan is booking until the 4th of February at Theatre503 (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Danny Kaan.

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