Eternity Playhouse, February 9
Terrible repression in Britain in the 1950s when homosexuality was still a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison leading many men to live a life of denial, secrets and guilt; hard won sexual liberation in the present that makes relationships between gay men infinitely easier but not necessarily without complications.
Alexi Kaye Campbell’s award-winning play The Pride, which premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2008, moves between the two eras to explore the huge shift in attitudes to homosexuality over the last 50 years.
Set in London, the play opens in 1958 with a scene that could come straight out of a drawing room comedy where so much is unspoken or merely hinted at, with shades of Terence Rattigan or Noel Coward (drinks trolley and all).
Sylvia (Geraldine Hakewill), a former actress, has invited children’s author Oliver (Matt Minto) whose book she is illustrating to meet her strait-laced real estate husband Phillip (Simon London). Over drinks before the three of them go out for dinner, the conversation is polite and stilted with tension crackling beneath the surface. Sylvia cajoles an embarrassed Oliver into telling an epiphany he had in Greece that suggests he is gay. Philip meanwhile seems struggling with an attraction to him.
The play then jumps to the present with Oliver entertaining a costumed rent-boy. The names of the three central characters are the same but they are completely different people. Oliver is a freelance journalist with an addiction to anonymous sex, which his partner Phillip can no longer cope with. Miserable at losing him, Oliver constantly turns to his loyal best friend Sylvia for comfort.
Moving back and forth between the two timeframes, The Pride is a very well written and constructed drama in which Kaye Campbell balances the tortuous angst, guilt and dark, intense elements of the play with wit and humour.
Occasionally, it feels a little over-written: for example, a present day scene between Oliver and the editor of a lad’s mag who wants an article about gay sex that will appeal to straight men feels too long, if not unnecessary. And the 1950s scenes are more powerful than the present day ones but overall it’s a provocative, brave, compassionate play.
Directing it for Darlinghurst Theatre Company, as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival, Shane Bosher helms a riveting production on Lucilla Smith’s stark set with grey back wall, onto which the cast carry minimal furniture and props in quick flowing scene changes.
Bosher directs with sensitivity, finding both the humour and the deep, intense pain inherent in the piece. He stages one particularly brutal moment with a frank authenticity but without it feeling salacious. Above all, he draws excellent performances from a fine cast.
London and Minto are exceptional. Both of them create two characters across the eras that are so totally different (their physicality, accents, vocal rhythms and mannerisms) they could almost be different actors – supported by Lisa Mimmocchi’s excellent costuming.
London is so stitched up and humourless as the 1950s Phillip it’s as if he has every muscle in his body clenched, while his present day character has a physical ease about him. Minto’s 1950s Oliver is fumbling, awkward, embarrassed and clearly lonely yet witty and endearing, while his modern persona is louche, funny and confident in his own skin.
Hakewill is also terrific as the rather delicate, sensitive Sylvia married to Phillip, who intuitively knows what is going on, and as the sassy, open-minded contemporary Sylvia.
Kayle Kazmarzik lends strong support as the rent-boy (showing a sure comic timing), magazine editor and a doctor to whom the 1950s guilt-ridden Phillip turns to.
The Pride asks tough questions about gay life today as well as in the past, questions about fidelity, promiscuity, the pursuit of happiness, and being true both to yourself and others. Recommended.
The Pride plays at the Eternity Playhouse until March 6. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com or 02 8356 9987