Many Roads to Paradise

Stewart Permutt
Jermyn Street Theatre
(2009)

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A down-and-out travel agent sets up a liaison in a gay bar with a virtual correspondent with the cybername "Top for a Hungry Bot". His assistant is the bullied partner in a stalled, long-term lesbian relationship. And her mother is dwindling away in a North London Jewish nursing home, cared for by a competent and compassionate nurse who happens to be a Somalian Muslim. So Stewart Permutt sets up his exploration of the private lives of a group of interlinked individuals. It is not about a dramatic ripping away of the façade however, but rather the sheer normality of people's sexuality and sexual lives. As such it's a fresh view; but ultimately it's disappointing to see a playwright remove any sense of anger or urgency from a portrayal of gay relationships and not have any other real drama to replace it with.

Martin, the travel agent, has come out of a long-term, unconsummated relationship and is gradually watching his self-owned business go down the flusher. He throws himself into dating and meets Leo, a younger but not particularly young semi-stud who, despite being visibly past his best, paints himself as the louche lothario of the North London night. It's gently comical without baiting Leo, who in a way is the play's most well-adjusted character: comfortable with himself and always honest with everyone. There's some very neat writing in their encounters: when they first meet Leo unblinkingly spells out the reason for his interest:"I like an older hairy guy with a bit of a gut who don't take himself too seriously." Jason Wing does this deadpan frankness marvellously. And Tim Stern as Martin is good to watch too, all giggles and twitches and desperate, eager-to-please nerves. His naive quality leads Leo to comment that sex with him makes him "feel like a paedophile".

Martin's assistant Helen meanwhile is suffering under the tongues of both her elderly mother and her, frankly, abusive partner. The latter, Avril, is very well drawn as a former high-flying radio producer who since being let go, has resorted to striding drunkenly around the house criticising her girlfriend at every opportunity in order to retain some vague sense of authority. Her cut-glass put-downs are in never-ending supply; her acrobatic negativity is almost to be marvelled at. Except that Gillian Hanna's Helen is being visibly eroded by the years of silent suffering. She takes the abuse, and is accused of sulking whenever she shows her discontent. It's interesting to see a portrayal of a lesbian relationship as being as prone to psychological complications as any other. But it's still far from scintillating drama to watch the couple for the most part of the play simply scrabbling around in their rut, while we seethe helplessly for the wronged Helen. Even when the tables turn, it's not as satisfying as we would like.

Helen's mother Stella has struck up a friendship with her nurse Sadia that gives her much more pleasure than her testy relationship with her daughter. Stella is blind and so cannot see Sadia's hijab. It's smart of Permutt to keep us guessing whether this will be the turning-point of the play. In the end, like everything else it is normalised in a quite positive way. It is only Helen whose pent-up bitterness is eventually unleashed on the innocent Sadia. She attacks her by assuming Sadia's prejudice against her as a lesbian; the saint-like nurse, not a bone of hatred in her body, fires back a fuming tirade against "the lies of the English". No persecution complex excuses someone from rounding on another persecuted minority, Permutt is saying, and here the play is on strong ground.

On the whole though it is diverting, sympathetic and true to life without ever really exerting a grip. Thelma Ruby as Stella is perfectly at home in her cantakerous character but it requires no daring thespian leaps; I imagine Miriam Karlin, who played the part at the Finborough last year but sadly fell ill before this run began, would have done sterling work too but not enough to spark the play into more vital life.

A word for Cherry Truluck's design, though, which layers subtle video projections over the rough brick of the back wall and the incongruous hanging panels set against it, suggesting the city's various surfaces bleeding across one another; or the images on two lenses slid one on top of the other to become indistinguishable.

Until 14th November

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury