Political criticism has dogged Mart Crowley’s 1969 play from the start. Its portrayal of a group of bitchy, self-hating queens has never been on-message as far as the gay rights movement is concerned. It’s the perennial problem with gays – or any minority – that their portrayal could be seen as presenting some kind of truth about the group as a whole. An unfair disadvantage considering no one has ever left Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf thinking white American straights are completely barking mad.
The characters may not always be that likeable – at various times they are spiteful, shallow and racist – but the talented cast always highlights their vulnerability. However badly they treat each other, and themselves, they are quite clearly battling their own demons.
The action takes place during the night of a birthday party thrown for ‘ugly pockmarked Jew fairy’ Harold (Mark Gatiss) by his friend Michael (Ian Hallard) – a queer who externalises his Catholic guilt by being as vituperative to his friends as he can get away with – and occasionally going a bit further than that. Those taking part in the celebration include ageing ‘pansy’ Emory (James Holmes), African-American Bernard (Greg Lockett), dumb-but-pretty escort played by Jack Derges and Michael’s straight friend from college Alan (John Hopkins).
During the course of the evening they turn on each other for their perceived inadequacies: for being too conventional or too gay or too pretty or too ugly. Some of the themes feel a bit dated – the idea that a married man who despises queers might himself turn out to be gay was probably more shocking forty years ago. And whilst racism is touched on, it’s dealt with a bit too tritely with the black character simply saying it’s OK when he does it, but not so much coming from someone who’s white.
Holmes comes close to stealing the show with his wonderfully gravelly yet camp New York drawl. Gatiss is marvellously acidic; and something of a commanding presence as he battles his nemesis cum friend. Hallard, although playing the most frankly poisonous of the group, manages to find some sympathy for a man emotionally constrained by his own self-loathing.
Taken as a whole Boys is a very entertaining mix of comedy, melodrama, and exceedingly bitchy put downs. The most sympathetic character Donald (Daniel Boys) becomes the person the audience identifies with the most – it’s made clear he’s an outsider of this group – and the image of him holding his cruel, damaged friend during the play’s last few minutes is a quietly poignant contrast to the occasional campy histrionics of the preceding two hours.
Continues at the Theatre Royal, Brighton until November 12.
For more details and tickets click here.