Published: 7 October, 2016
by CATHERINE USHER
BASED on a play that was first performed in 1968, and released as a film in 1970, the setting harks back to a time when people played records, called their friends on the house phone and made amazingly racist references to the ethnicity of their pals just for giggles. Indeed some of the things Emory (James Holmes) says to fellow party guest Bernard (Greg Lockett), a black man, drew a collective sharp intake of breath from the Park Theatre audience – remarks which probably wouldn’t have even registered as controversial when it was originally performed.
Mostly this play is quite modern in its themes. A group of gay friends assemble to celebrate the birthday of 42-year-old Harold (Mark Gatiss) and, as the booze flows and the dope goes up in smoke, their emotional fragility is forced to the surface.
Party host Michael (Ian Hallard) is a complex character who is as fascinating as he is ultimately repulsive. There are early indications that alcohol can turn him nasty, but nothing quite prepares the audience for the viciousness he can unleash.
The dynamic between Harold and Michael is particularly intriguing. Although birthday boy Harold arrives just before the play’s interval, he makes his presence felt and it’s immediately apparent how integral he is to the group.
The camaraderie between the friends seems genuine and the way the characters entertain and engage each other, despite their differences, is very convincing. To a certain degree they are all vulnerable, brittle even, but they buoy themselves up with a cocktail of self-depreciation, flamboyance, bitchiness and good humour.
Snipey snobbishness is projected deliciously onto the only stranger in the group, the hustler Cowboy (Jack Derges) who, although by no means a genius, is clearly switched on to the insecurities of the characters around him.
Derges is marvellous in the role – dutifully handsome, laid-back and content. His confident presence only serves to make the other party guests appear even more neurotic, tapping into a further deep vein of comedy.
There are so many sharp lines that their impact almost lessens as the play progresses – ultimately, it’s just very witty, beautifully observed dialogue.
The real power of the piece comes from the emotional turmoil stirred up in most of the men and the contrasting ways they wrestle with their demons.
UNTIL OCTOBER 30
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