The Boys In The Band brings Mart Crowley’s seminal play back to life on the West End. Starring TV’s Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) and his husband Ian Hallard, along with a capable cast of seven others, the script, although dated, remains razor sharp, and an interesting time capsule of the past, commenting on LGBT relations in the 60s.
Michael (Ian Hallard) throws a party for middle aged friend and self-proclaimed ‘pock-marked, Jew fairy’ Harold (Gatiss). He’s joined by regular friend with benefit and bookish Donald (Daniel Boys), effeminate, bitchy queen Emory (James Holmes), his muscle Mary ‘gift’ cowboy to Harold (Jack Derges), straight acting divorced schoolteacher Hank (Nathan Nolan), his artist, polyamorous boyfriend Larry (Ben Mansfield) and token black friend Bernard (Greg Lockett). As the insults fly and the camp gets played up, Michael is also joined by the sole straight man, old homophobic college mate Alan (John Hopkins), who hastily arrives in town after a tearful phone call and may or may not be a closet queen. As cocktails get downed and the feathers fly, old wounds are reopened and bitter laments come out, as the men navigate their identity and come to terms with how their homosexuality has affected their lives.
Adam Penford’s direction is tightly done, allowing for the wit of the script to really come through with rapid fire wordplay and deft insults thrown around. Mark Gatiss has a phenomenal presence as birthday boy Harold, commanding the entire theatre’s attention as he steps into the house, fashionably late and announced with a single, booming laugh, clad in sunglasses and a huge Jewfro. It doesn’t stop there, and throughout the second act, Gatiss remains the queen supreme of the party, always ready with a retort that’s able to shut down Hallard as Michael’s embittered insults in their strange frenemy-type relationship, whose increasingly evident self-loathing and inebrity becomes a catalyst for the play to take a dark turn when he forces the guests to play a twisted, revealing party game. James Holmes’ performance consistently brought the laughs as the life of the party, as his delicate movements and petulant but accurate whines provided a look at the stereotypical effeminate queen comfortable with his own sexuality and portrayal of it, indulging in it even. Later on, this endearment works to break our hearts even more when he recounts his story of unrequited love from high school, and is undoubtedly one of the more sympathetic characters.
Having first premiered in 1968, just before the Stonewall riots, The Boys In The Band is not without its problems in our modern day context, where difference and tolerance is cause for celebration, as opposed to its proliferation of self-hate. Yet, looking at it from a 21st century perspective, the play touched on multiple issues that still remain evident even today, bringing up the idea of open relationships (and its problems), an inability to resolve religion and sexuality and deeply closeted ‘straight’ men. There’s a kind of forward thinking-ness to it too, as the characters seem to stand together against Alan, united against discrimination and asserting their sexuality in his presence (eventually). Even Emory, who could be seen as a weak, screaming queen, is defended, and his confidence in carrying himself a source of acclaim.
In a sense then, The Boys In The Band acts as a surprisingly forward looking time capsule, dated but relevant when approached from the right angle despite problems like its awkwardly inserted, climactic phone game, which Penford here makes surprisingly and successfully natural. With strong performances from the cast and brilliant, nostalgic design from Rebecca Bower in Michael’s diva ridden living room with modern furnishing, The Boys In The Band is a critical look at gay relations in the 60s, and a reminder that we’ve really come a long way since then, and yet, still persist in some oddly archaic and dangerous ways. One thing’s for certain though – gay men still trade some of the most memorable and painfully accurate insults around, and you won’t know whether to laugh or gasp at the things that come out of these boys’ mouths.
The Boys In The Band plays at the Vaudeville Theatre till 18 February. Tickets available here
Photo Credit: Darren Bell