REVIEW: Leather @ The Finborough Theatre

Brian Butler June 22, 2021

Peter Scott-Presland  says that his controversial play Leather was written as a revenge piece after his lover left him. Banned  towards the end of its run by the brewery running the Finborough Theatre in London’s  Earl’s Court, it remains today a shocking look at gay male rape , sado-masochism , and violence in private and public .

Some 30 years after its 1990 debut, it is still a very hard watch and those easily upset by such subjects will find it hard to sit through. That said, this rehearsed reading, now streamed on the Finborough website, is  dark, funny and vitally  important.

Written soon after the introduction of the infamous Section  28, and at a time when the violent extreme right wing held regular demonstrations , it was described  wrongly by the London Evening Standard as “ this squalid  little play”. It was the first  piece of theatre to deal with male rape , and it’s all the more shocking as it’s set in the domestic setting of Queer households .

Phil, played brilliantly by Matthew Hodson,  is starting a tentative relationship with the younger Gordon ( also  played brilliantly by Denholm Spurr ). We quickly learn that Gordon is recovering from the trauma of rape in a fetish  club -but in fact not really recovering. Gordon  is at once vulnerable  and flawed , but also much more resilient than Phil realises. Denholm  strikes an amazing balance between the contradictions in Gordon’s character. His finely nuanced performance , following the twists and turns of Gordon’s frightening journey is impeccably played and very moving.

Matthew’s equal skill is to show us the inner vulnerability of the apparently outward confidence which   activist Phil transmits to the Queer world in which he seems at ease. He is utterly convincing and mesmerising in his character’s slow decline mentally and morally.

The wrecking ball of the situation is Terry,  ( Will Forester ) a friend of Phil’s , whose domneeering personality makes slavedom , pain and violence somehow acceptable to the already damaged Gordon. We are not spared verbally or visually the darker aspects of this violent relationship, though the playwright has a fine touch for humour – with some queenie one-liners for a Queer barrister, played with relish by Keith Bursnall .

And there’s a cleverly funny scene in a Soho sex shop , with all its paraphernalia and fetish wear.

The play deals with violence in different guises –  male rape by strangers; domestic abuse; violence in public for what seems the right cause and violence as a source  of pleasure.

The denouement is shocking to watch, and even though filmed here with every actor separately in isolation , we get a graphic feel for how it must have been in live performance.  This is due to the skilful direction of Patrick Kealey , who despite the filming restrictions brings a visceral immediacy to the performances of his cast. Keith Bursnall plays Clive the barrister friend.

Presented by Homo Promos, Leather is free to view  until 20 July, but donations are welcome for survivors of abuse charity, donations to Stay Brave:  Donate | Stay Brave