Above the Stag Theatre
This is a reworking of Arthur Schnitzler's sexual merry-go-round La Ronde (Reigen) with its cycle of brief sexual encounters in which one partner reappears in the following scene. We've been there before. This time it's gay sex; we've been there too: although this play dates from 2004, it wasn't the first - nor is it the last. There is a different musical gay version due elsewhere this Spring, So, what has this version got to offer?
Heifner has created a set of characters that approximate to modern equivalents of the 1900 Viennese originals as does the way in which sexual encounters cross social boundaries, and that while some search for love most are just getting their rocks off and selfishly exploitive. Schnitzler's play can be read as showing the pattern of transmission of venereal disease, especially the syphilis then virulent in Vienna and with HIV and other STDs that's as relevant today. Indeed in a programme note Heifner expresses his concern at many gay men, especially younger ones, ignore the need to practice safe sex, but there is little in his play to make the point, though the use of condoms is noticeably absent.
The episodes (ten couplings in two hours playing) are necessarily brief and sometimes the characters verge on gay cliché. There is an intriguing picture of a young rent boy - you are never sure whether he is a naïve first timer or just clever at playing - and what in this production, which seems to have a British setting, looks like an investigation of underage sex with a school pupil seducing a teacher which it would have been interesting to explore further. In fact in the US the references to school would mean a college situation and the cast list calls the older man the Professor. The boy in both is freshly played by Stanley Eldridge who completes the circle with an episode with a Hollywood producer, another good performance from Simon Boughey.
Some of the cast are less happy in the material they have to play. Michael Morrison struggles to make an incoherent scene about a fake writer work - he is much happier as a spoiled prick-tease rich boy and the student; and though some of the audience found Stewart Dunseith's drunk actor hysterical, it tipped his scenes into camp send-up. His handyman, led on and then spurned by the little rich boy, was much more interesting. Royce Ullah had his touching moments as a man in an unsatisfactory relationship and is fetishly funny neatly laying out each item as he undressed but this is neither riotous comedy nor a dissecting of gay mores. However, five actors doubling roles is confusing in that they sometimes suggest the same character recurring rather than a new one in this cycle.
Elegantly set and lit by Fiona Russell and Richard Lambert on this theatre's tiny stage, it is smoothly directed Peter Bull who, with choreographer Lee Proud, has devised scene changes with the black boxes now ubiquitous in London's fringe theatres, that often become poignant playlets in themselves but this does not make up for what seems a patchy and rather lightweight script. This isn't a piece for the mackintosh brigade: there is quite a lot of nudity and some of the bodies are well-honed but actual sexual action takes places in black outs.
Run ends 20th February 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton