Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Canary

Jonathan Harvey
Hampstead Theatre, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and English Touring Theatre production
Hampstead Theatre
(2010)

Production photo

In this wonderful, life-affirming play about what it means to be gay and accept one's own sexuality, Jonathan Harvey seeks to do for Britain what Tony Kushner did by writing Angels in America.

Admittedly, Harvey works on a much smaller scale, taking a mere 2½ hours rather than seven, but even so, Canary makes a powerful statement about gay politics and the impact of AIDS.

In episodic fashion, with occasional injections of song and magic realism to enliven the evening, the writer focuses on the gay experience across almost half a decade to the present day, using the nuclear family of a Chief Inspector of police to illustrate his points.

Tom, played by Philip Voss who also gets the chance to bring Mary Whitehouse to the stage as well as an ageing, raging queen, is an upstanding, authoritarian member of society. He is happily married to Ellie. This latter part is taken by Paula Wilcox, who not only plays it sympathetically but also gives a mini tour de force as an unnamed but instantly identifiable female Prime Minister.

They have a lovely daughter, Jody McNee's Melanie, but sadly lost their son in a motorcycle accident that never was.

To begin with, it becomes clear that Tom is somehow being blackmailed by reality TV guru Russell (Sean Gallagher).

In the early scenes though, it is a little difficult to put the pieces together. However, Harvey skilfully constructs this work, gradually allowing viewers to understand the connections between two pairs of gay young men, a dying motorcyclist, a camp TV presenter and Tom's family.

Historically, the play opens in 1962 when Philip McGinley, as a gauche young policeman called Tom, finds guilty, illicit pleasure with Billy, a much more open and adventurous Northern Irishman, played by Kevin Trainor. This ends in tears, as Tom enters a rushed marriage with pregnant Ellie.

In 1971, a stand-up, transvestite Mary Whitehouse condemns homosexuality, a word that she delightedly chews over like a succulent steak. This eventually leads to one of the play's great comic set pieces, as her speech is ridiculed and destroyed from the audience by a group of "queers", not to mention an in-yer-face nun.

The heart of the play, in every sense, rests on the relationship another decade on between Mickey (played by Ben Allen) and a shy boy, who continuously denies his sexuality, and happens to go by the name of Russell. These ingredients are then recollected far from tranquillity in the present-day.

In Hettie MacDonald's production, not only are all of the storylines cleverly brought together to provide a satisfying but thought-provoking evening but there is far more too.

This is Jonathan Harvey in Kushner mode and therefore the dead come back to comfort and haunt the living, mothers and sons fly above the stage and, by the end, Patti Smith's version of Because the Night becomes a joyous gay anthem.

Jonathan Harvey has an unfortunate habit of neglecting the stage for long periods but he usually seems to come back on top form. Canary is a first-rate play about an important subject and one hopes that, having got the taste for live work again, this excellent writer might produce a follow-up in the very near future.

Playing until 12 June

Reviewer: Philip Fisher