BWW Review: THE BOYS IN THE BAND, Park Theatre, 2 October 2016

When Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band premiered Off Broadway in 1968, a year before the Stonewall Riots, it was groundbreaking in its depiction of a community of gay men. Though adapted into a film, it's often fallen out of favour, its frank emphasis on self-loathing and catty one-liners at odds with some positive image-focussed equal rights campaigners.

Almost 50 years on, the most dated element is probably the play's unwieldy structure, with a first half that's an elongated version of a sitcom plot set-up: Michael is hosting a birthday party for Harold, attended by their openly gay friends, but wants to them appear straight when his old college roommate Alan turns up unexpectedly. The second half is stark and lacerating, as Michael - coming off a spell of sobriety - hits the bottle, and forces his guests into a destructive party game.

It's creakily schematic, which distracts from the more interesting aspects: exploring, challenging and deconstructing the stereotypes represented by this diverse group of men. There's globetrotting screenwriter Michael, whose glamorous Manhattan life is built on a mountain of unpaid bills; conflicted Donald, afraid to commit to a gay life in the city; Harold, self-conscious about his looks and ageing; African-American Bernard, dealing with racial insensitivity on top of his sexuality; determinedly effeminate Emory; and straight-acting schoolteacher Hank and his boyfriend Larry, who have different ideas of what constitutes a homosexual relationship.

Their terms of address are telling, whether in affectionate jest or crueller gibe: "screaming queen", "tired fairy", "Mary"; Harold labels himself "an ugly 42-year-old pock-marked Jew fairy". Perhaps the sharpest moment is Bernard taking his friends to task for their "Uncle Tom" behaviour - another form of intolerance within this beleaguered minority. Victims can be persecutors too.

Yet it often stems from an internalised hatred, with the men finding solace in one another's company, yet also projecting the homophobia they've endured. Emory's defiant flamboyance is celebrated, and then bitterly undercut; the beautiful but dumb 'Midnight Cowboy' hustler who arrives to entertain Harold, a gleaming personification of homosexual desire, is both admired and mocked. Crowley's script toggles between outrageously funny and deeply uncomfortable.

That destructive behaviour is more overtly portrayed through the likely closeted Alan, who lashes out violently in attempt to prove his heterosexuality. John Hopkins is the perfect deep-voiced matinee idol, dashing in a tux, who makes even ordering a drink a firm denunciation - "Just make it straight". But the hollowness of that persona is all too evident.

Yet the most shockingly masochistic incarnation is the initially charming Michael, who proves a mean, bullying, vicious drunk. Ian Hallard, getting the meatiest role here, doesn't shy away from the relentless nastiness of his behaviour, which is both horrific and - with the knowledge of the pain it stems from, both societal hate and simmering Catholic guilt - desperately sad to watch.

The sheer number of characters means some are a tad short-changed. The tantalising antipathy between Michael and Harold largely remains mysterious, though Mark Gatiss - deliciously attired in a Sixties permed wig, Lennon glasses, velvet jacket and polo neck - relishes each sardonic bon mot. Donald gets lost in the shuffle later in the piece, despite Daniel Boys' engagingly sincere performance, and Jack Berges doesn't get much to do other than display his chiselled abs and bulging pecs - though that he does marvellously.

The terrible unrequited love-based party game produces searing honesty from Bernard and Emory - heartbreakingly played by Greg Lockett and James Holmes respectively, the latter balancing cabaret queen hilarity with poignant yearning. There's a well-earned moment, too, for Ben Mansfield and Nathan Nolan's couple, as well as pertinent relationship discussion: if we're rejecting some sexual norms, what must we retain? Does entering a monogamous relationship, or a gay marriage, somehow dilute hard-fought 'otherness'?

As much as Crowley's work is concerned with gay issues, it also retains a universal relevance, from fears about ageing and addiction to the pressure to maintain a certain façade - the latter now exacerbated by social media - and the corrosive quality of both excessive deceit and punishing honesty. Nor, tragically, is it a museum piece in its depiction of the struggles many face for social acceptance, and the accompanying mental health issues, even if some elements, like the oft-referenced police raids, are thankfully less prevalent today.

Adam Penford's production is brisk and animated, and designer Rebecca Brower provides a period pastiche feast of lime green, orange and brown, along with iconic starlets (Judy, Marilyn, Liza) and movie posters. If the play is a little too stylised and contrived for 2016, its textured humour, blistering revelations and pertinent debates, delivered by a strong company, are still highly effective.

The Boys in the Band is at Park Theatre until 30 October

Photo credit: Darren Bell

Read our interview with Ian Hallard

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From This Author Marianka Swain

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