Vauxhall’s Above The Stag Theatre, Britain’s only full-time permanent LGBT producing theatre, seems to be going through something of a golden period currently.
Fresh from the sell-out success of its seasonal panto – ‘Treasure Island The Curse of the Pearl Necklace’ – and building on a very creditable year in 2014 that also included my personal favourite new comedy You Should Be So Lucky, Peter Bull and team have brought us yet another European premiere in the form of Jason Mitchell’s 2009 play The Boys Upstairs, and all I can say is ‘Thank you’!
Set in New York in the present day the story is about three friends, all gay, who used to flat together at university; Josh, Seth, and Ashley.
Josh (Simon Walton) is a rather meticulous and single Jewish writer with a trust fund which means he’s able to work as an unpaid intern at an internet company and pursue his dream of producing a world-beating app. He lives in a nice two-bedroomed New York apartment which means he’s able to let out a room to Seth (Stanley Aldridge) a slightly hippy-ish school teacher. The third member of the triangular friendship, Ashley (Joe Leather) is a hedonistic fashionista forever jetting off to all over the world in pursuance of his dream of dressing the stars. However, newly-returned from Paris, where he’s apparently been studying and availing himself of all the eligible men that that fair city has to offer, Ashley needs somewhere to stay in New York and Josh’s sofa-bed and serious martini habit beckon, which is where our story begins.
Fortunately for us, though to the obvious annoyance of the two men who already live in the flat, Ashley just can’t seem either to keep his libido in check, or hold his alcohol like he used to be able to, and brings back to his sofa-bed-home a series of men all unsuitable in one way or another.
Add into the mix a very hunky new neighbour who’s just moved in downstairs and pops up to borrow the guys’ tools (!) Eric (Daniel Garcia, making his stage debut) and a new man for both Josh and Seth – both played by Hugh O’Donnell, more of which later – and the little home they all share seems to be teeming with people though there are only five in the cast.
Mitchell’s characters are all well drawn, with plenty of back story, but also plenty of personal foibles, problems, and desires. The three central characters really are people you’d like to spend an evening with.
Where Mitchell surpasses himself, however, is in the subsidiary characters and characterisation, and it’s here that Hugh O’Donnell – last seen at Above The Stag playing Ethel the Merman in the just-finished panto – comes into his own giving a bravura set of performances and individual personality to Matt, G.I.Harder, Bill, Gabie, Brad, and Sam, the various lovers of the respective housemates.
Though O’Donnell imbues them all with life and individuality, it’s Ashley’s hook up at the start of Act Two which is comedy gold, as he wakes ‘the morning after’ to find he’s bedded a chorine – currently working as a waiter – newly back in town after touring, and who speaks almost totally in ‘showtune’. The scene is too wonderful for words so you’ll have to buy a ticket and see for yourself just how good theatre can be when actor, director, and writer are all perfectly attuned.
I should perhaps also give a shout out to whoever is responsible for O’Donnell’s wigs (sadly uncredited in the programme) though possibly designer Zoe Hurwitz, who gives here another great, well dressed set. Above The Stag really is setting the standard for set design and costuming outside the West End.
Jack Weir’s lighting also sets a standard, this time in funkiness, as befits this little powerhouse theatre’s home in Vauxhall, with Andrew Beckett’s fluid direction keeping everything moving along nicely.
In fact, if I have one criticism of the play it’s that it’s TOO funny. Though Act Two is almost perfectly paced, Act One would benefit from a little more drama to counter the evident wit of Mitchell’s writing, to give it more light and shade.
This isn’t Chekhov, but it’s very, very, very funny, and the reception at Above The Stag is as always, the most welcoming in town. Go.