Award-winning playwright Jonathan Harvey‘s Canary spins through the swirling mists of LGBT History, effortlessly, and unflinchingly, focussing on the intertwined lives of those shattered by the establishment’s treatment of homosexuals.
First, we encounter Mary Whitehouse, in suitably ridiculous caricature with a heavy hint of Julie Walters’ Mrs Overall, played by a bewigged Sarah Leedham. Didn’t you know that you can tell it’s a gay if they’re wearing corduroy pants?
Canary flits from 1960s Liverpool, during the criminalisation of homosexual, with Billy (played by a malleable Samuel Nunn) and Tom falling foul of the law. Then it’s on to a stop-off in the 1980s, with Mickey and Russell, who’ve escaped to London’s streets paved with gold, only they’re littered with fear and those who have fallen from the AIDS crisis, the same crisis that effects them both.
What is presented as the here and now is a culmination of what went before; at times it was magical (the late coming out of ‘Tom’s father’ whose frustrated intent is grappled by Mike Skinner); or far fetched: Billy’s revenge on the doctor he encountered during the otherwise dramatically effective aversion therapy scenes.
In the second act, we encounter the Gay Liberation Front, the times are changing, who while adorned in drag cause chaos at Mary Whitehouse’s Festival of Light, which boasted the attendance of such luminaries as Lord Longford and Sir Cliff Richard.
There’s an appearance from Margaret Thatcher who together with Leigh Ward‘s bumbling Norman Fowler cobble together tongue-twisting terminology for HIV awareness, which wouldn’t seem out of place in a Victorian sex ed pamphlet.
Projections mark the change of action, adding much needed time and place markers on the otherwise sparse stage: we’re in a hospital overlooking the London cityscape; we’re flying through the clouds on a carpet ride in a dream-like sequence; we’re back in the present day.
These magic-realist scenes featuring Mickey’s mother, the play’s axle ‘Older Ellie’, embodied touchingly by Patti Griffiths, hone in on the search for answers: Why did she lie to her daughter about Mickey’s death? Was she ashamed? How did Mickey really die?
Answers become clear as the time/space spins dizzyingly; but the one question the audience may ask is: are there too many questions, from too broad a subject, from too many characters to answer?
The grandiosity, and emotional clout of Mickey’s death scene, played with humour till the end by Michael Williams, following contracting HIV in the 1980s should serve as the play’s crescendo, yet by that point several other characters have yet to see a conclusion, and when they do they fail to reach the level of intensity, clipping this bird’s wings.
Canary is playing until March 9 at Brighton Little Theatre.
Tickets: £9 from http://brightonlittletheatre.ticketline.co.uk/canary