The Pride

Alexi Kaye Campbell
Richmond Theatre

Naomi Sheldon and Harry Hadden-Paton in The Pride Credit: Marc Brenner
Al Weaver and Mathew Horne in The Pride Credit: Marc Brenner

Following its hugely successful run as part of the Trafalgar Transformed season, Jamie Lloyd’s production of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride now takes to the road for a short tour, pitching up in Richmond this week after stops in Brighton and Manchester.

With just one significant change in its cast of four—Al Weaver, Harry Hadden-Paton and Mathew Horne all return to their roles, while Naomi Sheldon replaces the otherwise-engaged Hayley Attwell—Lloyd’s production remains a slick, sometimes very powerful affair, albeit one that still doesn’t disguise some of the writing’s shortcomings.

Essentially Campbell offers two plays for the price of one in The Pride, setting up an interwoven dual time-line that juxtaposes 1950s repression with naughty-noughties libertine-ness in order to explore issues of fulfilment in, and changing attitudes towards, homosexual relationships.

The focus is on a trio of characters. In 1958, Philip is a property-agent introduced by his wife Sylvia to Oliver, a well-travelled children’s author’s whose latest book she is illustrating. A sense of recognition and attraction sparks between the two men, but any chance of a more lasting relationship founders on Philip’s brutal denial and repression of his sexuality.

In 2008, it’s Oliver and Philip who are the couple, but now their union is threatened by something else: namely, Oliver’s addiction to cruising and Internet hook-ups. Unfolding in the week leading up to London’s Gay Pride, this contemporary strands finds Oliver consulting Sylvia (here his supportive pal) about his predicament as he struggles to adjust to life without Philip.

There’s a significant precedent for The Pride’s structure: Mark Ravenhill’s 2001 play Mother Clap’s Molly House, which zipped between eighteenth and early twenty-first century London in order to contrast two versions of hedonistic gay male experience. Campbell similarly locates an emotional vacuum at the heart of our anything-goes culture, but if Ravenhill’s interest was in the economics underpinning “illicit” sexuality then Campbell’s concern lies more with the consequences of both repression and liberation, the challenges and responsibilities involved in each.

The play’s contention is that 1958 Philip and 2008 Philip are equally screwed up by the social expectations they’ve imbibed and that the former’s denial of his sexual desires and the latter’s embracing of his result, equally, in damaging betrayals of self.

That’s all well and good—if a tad too symmetrical—up to a point. But the fifties scenes that Campbell has fashioned are so much richer and more involving than the 2008 scenes that the play ends up feeling unbalanced.

Certainly The Pride falls back upon a cliché-veering image of 1950s middle-class England that contemporary audiences can easily endorse: it’s all cut-glass vowels and quivering by the cocktail cabinet, a place where gay men end up fearful and depressed at best and suicidal or gruesomely “medicalised” at worst. But these scenes transcend their sub-Rattigan inclinations and generate an immersive power, culminating in a devastating final encounter between Philip and Oliver.

The quip-strewn 2008 scenes feel crude and obvious by comparison, pivoting around a will-boy-get-boy-back? premise that wouldn’t disgrace your average Hollywood rom-com. Oliver’s sexual exploits are played for prurience or easy laughs, but what’s hard to swallow (no pun intended) is the play’s endorsing of coupledom (Campbell’s careful code word is “intimacy”) as the ultimate desirable goal for homosexuals.

Thus, for all the frank sex talk, an uncomfortably reactionary perspective starts to emerge. Much less po-faced in tone than Steve McQueen’s sex addiction melodrama Shame, The Pride ultimately falls victim to a similar moralising tendency, as Oliver’s promiscuity is presented as an adolescent addiction to be overcome just as his ties to mummy-figure Sylvia must be, somewhat, cut.

Still, if Lloyd’s staging doesn’t overcome all of these problematic aspects it does boast committed performances that find the right emotional beats, especially in the compelling 1950s scenes. Multitasking across three roles—as a rent boy, a lad’s mag editor and 1950s medic administering aversion-therapy—Mathew Horne still plays to the gallery for the most part.

But Al Weaver continues to bring a beautiful intensity and earnestness, with lovely undercurrents of playfulness, to his role as his 1958 Oliver and conveys the contemporary version’s neediness and horniness with aplomb. He’s partnered well by Harry Hadden-Paton (here effectively channelling the Rattigan chops he’s already proved via his memorable turns in Flare Path and Terence Davies’s film of The Deep Blue Sea) and by Naomi Sheldon who contributes well-judged turns as the impatient pal and the perceptive wife.

If Lloyd’s production proves something of a mixed bag ultimately, then that’s due to the fact that Campbell has really written only half a good play here, one in which—dramatically speaking—it’s the wounds wrought by repression, rather than the challenges of liberation, that resonate the most.

Reviewer: Alex Ramon