The Pride

Eternity Playhouse, February 9

Matt Minto, Geraldine Hakewill, Simon London (c) Helen White

Matt Minto, Geraldine Hakewill and Simon London. Photo: Helen White

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.

Geraldine Hakewill, Matt Minto (c) Helen White

Geraldine Hakewill and Matt Minto. Photo: Helen White

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

Cock

Old Fitzroy Theatre, February 8

Matt Minto and Michael Whalley. Photo: Tim Levy

Matt Minto and Michael Whalley. Photo: Tim Levy

Finally, Sydney has the chance to see the acclaimed, provocatively titled Cock by British playwright Mike Bartlett – and this terrific production from Red Line Productions (the new caretakers of the Old Fitz), presented as part of the Mardi Gras Festival, shows why the play has generated such a buzz on both sides of the Atlantic.

After premiering in 2009 in London in the Royal Court’s tiny Upstairs Theatre, the play had an Off-Broadway season (where the New York Times reviewed it as the Cockfight Play while many other publications included an asterisk or two in the title).

Cock explores a love triangle between two men and a woman. Only one of them is named – the indecisive John, who is torn between two lovers. The others are simply referred to in the script as M and W (for man and woman).

John (Michael Whalley) has been in a relationship with M (Matt Minto) since coming out. They’ve now hit something of a seven-year itch and for John, anyway, the relationship is not what it was. Then to his surprise, he finds himself drawn to W (Matilda Ridgway), a lonely 28-year old divorcee who he meets at the bus stop on his way to work and ends up in bed with.

John doesn’t have a strongly developed sense of himself. Where the dominant M constantly puts him down, chipping away at his sense of self-worth, John finds a more positive reflection of himself in W’s eyes. She is gentle and nurturing and confident that they would be good for each other. She makes John feel that he could amount to something and she offers him the chance to have a family. Unexpectedly, the sex is pretty good too.

M is angry, outraged, seeing the affair not just as a personal betrayal but as an inexplicable affront to their identity and lifestyle as gay men.

John dithers. He doesn’t know who and what he wants. He’d prefer not to have to decide. But M and W are both prepared to fight for him. M gets John to invite W to a dinner party and ropes in his father (Brian Meegan) to help plead his cause. It’s an excruciating affair for all concerned. But John is cornered and is forced to make a decision.

Cock is a tight, tense piece running for 80 minutes. In many ways it’s like a dance that becomes an emotional tug-of-war before escalating into an all-out fight.

Bartlett’s writing is wittily astringent, full of staccato phrases and unfinished sentences along with short, sharp scenes.

The original production was staged in the round as if in a wooden cockfighting ring. It’s impossible to replicate that in the tiny Old Fitz but director Shane Bosher has managed to create a similar vibe by having a row of chairs along the back wall and down the two sides of the stage, which has been painted a gleaming white. The rest of the audience sits in the usual banks of seating.

I saw the play from a seat on the stage and at such close proximity, under Michele Bauer’s bright lighting, you felt voyeuristically close to the action, quite literally in the room with the characters. You were also very aware of the audience watching on from the darkness as they would have been of you sitting right there in the light.

Bosher directs and choreographs his actors with a wonderful sense of spatial awareness. The way he positions them on stage seems to heighten the tensions between them. He keeps things moving at a nifty pace, using short, snap blackouts to punctuate the scenes.

Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway. Photo: Tim Levy

Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway. Photo: Tim Levy

As in the original production, there are no props. A sex scene between John and W is performed fully clothed with Whalley and Ridgway standing close to each but without touching. Instead they circle other and gaze into each other’s eyes, their bodies and expressive faces speaking reams. It feels sexy and real.

Both are perfectly cast. Looking at the Whippet-thin Whalley, you know exactly what W means when she describes him as being like a pencil drawing that hasn’t been coloured in. And though John’s indecision should have you wanting to shake him, Whalley somehow manages to keep him sympathetic.

Ridgway is a wonderful mixture of vulnerability and determination. Though it’s not really clear what W sees in John beyond recognising a similar loneliness in him, Ridgway convinces you to accept W’s attraction and need.

Minto also gives a strong performance as M, all blustering anger and up-tight, savage invective delivered with a sure sense of comedy. Occasionally his performance feels a little overdone but he complements the other two extremely well.

Meegan stepped into the breach at the very last minute (when an indisposed Nick Eadie withdrew after a couple of previews) and so still had script in hand when I saw the production, but he hardly referred to it and was already giving a finely judged performance.

Cock in an engrossing play that has you thinking about identity, about knowing and defining yourself, about sexuality, about clear-cut sexual definitions and something more fluid, about desire, possession and power. It’s a cracker of a play and a great little indie production. Definitely worth checking out.

Cock runs at the Old Fitz until March 6