The Boys in the Band
Tom O’Connell and James Seabright in association with Jack Maple, King’s Head Theatre and Park Theatre
It wasn’t till 1980 that the laws against consenting homosexual acts were abolished in New York for all but members of the New York National Guard. Breaking those laws could mean prison and loss of employment. Yet for a long time before that New York had a thriving gay scene. Police would for regular hefty bribes turn a blind eye to gay bars, and in 1968 the off-Broadway Theater Four mounted a production of the new play The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley.
The play’s depiction of a party of gay men joking about their sexuality, making explicit sexual comments and in general being open about their sexual preferences would have been for some a shock and for many an important positive event.
Its current production no longer carries a shock, but its account of the difficulties of coming to terms with being gay in a world that is sometimes belligerently heterosexual is still very real. The play is also witty and at times quite moving.
Michael (Ian Hallard) is holding a party at his apartment for Harold (Mark Gatiss) but the unexpected arrival of Alan (John Hopkins), a long-standing friend who is heterosexual, complicates the event and stirs up in Michael a mixture of anger and shame. In the second half it leads him to propose a very cruel game to his guests.
He is not the only one to be awkward about his sexual identity. Both he and his former partner Donald (Daniel Boys) are seeing therapists for the anxieties they have about their sexuality.
Even the birthday guest Harold arriving late instantly makes his worries explicit saying, "what I am Michael is an ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show my face to the world, it’s nobody’s god damned business but my own."
However, they have in different ways coped with the choices they have made. Some more than others. Hank (Nathan Nolan) seems comfortable that he is bisexual and has left his wife for his male lover.
The cast are confident and have the comfortable familiarity of friends. The performance is always convincing, generally uplifting and often funny.
The show doesn’t show us or even tell us about the relentless cruelty of a world that is reluctant to accept homosexuality. However it does give us strong witty characters that are resisting the effects of oppression.
They laugh, they engage with each other in a lively way and there is a moment when four of them joyfully if briefly dance together as a group.
Just one year after this play was first performed, police brutality against homosexual and transgender customers at New York’s Stonewall Inn sparked a resistance that was to inspire people across the world and lead to the creation of a more militant Gay Liberation Movement.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna