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August 14, 2013 5:43 pm
In the five years since Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play was first shown at London’s Royal Court, much has changed. While several countries have legalised same-sex marriage, others continue to outlaw and demonise homosexuality and Russia has recently introduced anti-gay legislation. Campbell’s examination of changing attitudes to sexuality is still fiercely topical: at the curtain call for Jamie Lloyd’s sensitive revival, the cast produced placards reading “To Russia, With Love”. But while the play focuses specifically on the experience of gay men, its deepest concerns are universal as it considers loneliness, self-knowledge and emotional integrity.
The play contrasts the stories of two gay men and a straight woman living in different periods. In 1958, Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton) is a property developer married to book illustrator Sylvia (Hayley Atwell) and Oliver (Al Weaver) is an author with whom Sylvia is working. When Oliver comes round for dinner, his arrival opens up cracks in the couple’s already brittle marriage. The two men embark on an affair but Philip is unable to overcome his terrified revulsion at his own feelings, with miserable consequences for all three characters. In the 2008 setting, the names remain the same but the context has changed. Philip and Oliver are a couple, but their relationship is breaking up under the strain of Oliver’s sexual infidelities.
Campbell crosses back and forth between the two periods, ingeniously interweaving attitudes to freedom, fidelity and candour to create a rich and subtle texture that examines the sources of identity. For the contemporary gay couple, progress has been made, but sexual liberation has also produced confusion about what self-expression really means. Campbell explores not only the deep psychological misery inflicted by prejudice – all three characters in the earlier scenario are painfully lonely and unhappy – but the interplay more generally between social mores, individual self-esteem and the search for love. Sex, the play suggests, is only part of the issue: happiness lies in knowing who you are and being at ease with that, as Soutra Gilmour’s simple set, backed by a huge mirror, underscores.
There is a slight tendency in both writer and director to mount the soapbox, which grates occasionally. But there are some great comic moments too – many of them provided by Mathew Horne as a series of clumsy characters. And lovely performances from the central three actors, who change character and mood in an instant, bring out the emotional depths and cross-currents of this wise, searching play.
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