King's Head Theatre
Tom’s partner Gary is putting on weight, his tummy keeps getting bigger. Tom thinks he’s just over-eating but Gary is convinced he is eating for two. The doctor may say it is just wind but something is moving inside him: he is having a baby.
Spitting Image was first staged in 1968, the year after the Sexual Offences Act had decriminalised homosexuality (and only for those over 21) and just after the ending of theatre censorship by the Lord Chamberlain. It can justifiably be said to be the West End’s first openly gay play and this, its first full revival since then, now heads the King’s Head’s 2016 queer season.
At a time when even two men living together raised eyebrows, let alone coming out as homosexual or same-sex parenting, Spitting Image was a shocker. Now, with gay marriage and greater tolerance, has it dated? Gareth Corke’s production keeps it in the late ‘60s with contemporary pop marking scene breaks so, as a period piece, it needs no updating.
The Internet and social media would make it even more difficult to keep a man having a baby a secret today and, perhaps, people would be more accepting but there is still plenty of prejudice around and governmental high-handedness to make the way Spencer satirises attitudes and a reactionary establishment still resonate as his two fathers try to escape interference.
Even more acute is the way that he shows the effect that an offspring has on a relationship (of whatever sexual pairing) as love and attention are given elsewhere.
In classic farce fashion, an initial unlikelihood has to be accepted and then everything else follows logically but acted with the pace and magnification that goes with farce.
Against the more naturalistic playing of Neil Chinneck as Tom and Alan Grant as Gary, pregnant at first with the very convincing bare, hairy bump, the rest of the cast unleash a fistful of comic creations. Paul Giddings is a hilarious succession of medicos (including a Scots drag Matron), Tom’s dad and a former Indian Army Major who's become a stuffed-shirt civil servant.
Amy Ambrose is Alan’s work colleague Sally, a girl who still holds a torch for him and a baby-banning landlady, and Rachel Gleaves plays social worker Miss Fothergill who spies for the Home Office (who almost discovers a conscience) and creates a wonderful caricature as Tom’s blinkered mother. Even Dad2 Tom doubles as a homophobic psychiatrist.
The actresses also separately offer disco gyrations between scenes to keep things moving, a filler to allow for their colleagues' quick changes as well as scene setting. Some are too long and the play does lose momentum but Amanda Mascarenhas’s simple traverse setting, centred on a curtain-enclosed hospital cubicle, works well, especially when flanked by clothes lines of drying babygrows.
Spitting Image is great fun. It doesn’t match the high camp style of Joe Orton but does balance its comic contrivances against some very serious issues. The comic capers of its minor characters are set against a naturalistic portrayal of a loving couple coping with challenges. This production doesn’t quite make that balance work.
Although Alan Grant makes a lovely male mother as Daddy 1, there is something not quite real about his explosion of frustration with Daddy 2, which gives the play its universal relevance. It may be a long built-up outburst but its thoughts get too run together, though elsewhere he and Neil Chinneck chart a believable relationship.
This is a play that makes you think about what has changed and what hasn’t, not least in gay theatre, and after an evening that is still highly amusing it leaves you with the still intriguing question of what effect it would have on society if reproduction really stopped needing two sexes.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton