The Boys in the Band at the Vaudeville Theatre
Mart Crowley’s play about eight gay men (and one confessed straight man) was a novel glimpse into a hidden way of life when it premiered, bringing the gay scene to the mainstream for the first time. It’s explosive and honest, featuring characters that straddle the line between exasperating and heart-rending.
Michael has thrown a birthday party for Harold. Although the cake and the kiss-o-gram cowboy are in place, the mood begins to sour as the men’s personal demons begin to fight for air in the ever-shrinking apartment. When the married and indignantly hetero Alan drops by, Michael finds old wounds resurfacing. The host implements a dangerous game, which dictates that each guest must call a man they love and tell him so. In the thinly disguised veil of fun, devastation reigns.
Alongside relentless comedy and pockets of joyfulness, the play refers to depression, shrink visits, debt, catholic guilt and self-loathing. Abject tragedy is sprinkled so flippantly throughout as to posit that a gay man’s life is not noteworthy for its wretchedness, as if it’s par for the course. Even in the sanctuary of a private apartment, the unsympathetic outside world reaches in through the boys’ tales of growing up hiding their sexuality, through Alan’s disgust and through references to the current social climate (we’re reminded that, in the 1960s, shows of homosexuality could result in being sacked from work).
The wonderful Mark Gatiss as Harold is slick as oil, unruffled and equipped with an acerbic tongue. He is not without his own demons, but the disparity between his composure and the accusations from Michael of crippling low self-esteem hint at a man getting through life with a very well-fitted mask.
It’s an all-round capable cast, but the action often lacks subtlety. Some of the individual phone calls between the men and their secret loves border on the saccharine.
Set and premiered in 1968, the play precedes by one year the Stonewall Riots in New York that set off the LGBT liberation movement. Witnessing this historically important piece now, it does not elicit the shock it first did (if it did, it wouldn’t have done its job the first time round) but it’s still pertinent. In the same week that it transferred to the Vaudeville Theatre, US senator Jason Rapert proposed to ban gay marriage in all 50 states. For better or for worse, The Boys in the Band is still needed.
Photo: Darren Bell
The Boys in the Band is at the Vaudeville Theatre from 7th until 18th February 2017. Book your tickets here.