Alexi Kaye Campbell’s 2008 play, The Pride, currently being revived at The Trafalgar Studios following its original outing at The Royal Court some five years ago is, sadly, all too prescient to the times we still inhabit.
The final walkdown by the talented cast of this seminal work reminds us all too well that although things have changed very much for the better in the UK, there are still 78 countries of the world where it is illegal to be gay, and in some states LGBT human rights are travelling in a backwards direction.
The play is set in two distinct periods, written in two different styles, and moves seamlessly and elegantly backwards and forwards between them under Jamie Lloyd’s assured directorial hand.
The elements of the play set in the 1950’s are written in what might loosely be called a ‘Terence Rattigan’ style where everything is underplayed, beautifully pointed with subtextual suggestion and repressed.
Sylvia (Hayley Atwell) is an illustrator working on a childrens’ book with slightly ‘other-worldly’ single man Oliver (Al Weaver), whom she brings home to meet her husband, the heavily closeted estate agent Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton). Things progress, and inevitably the two men have something approaching a relationship.
Philip, trying to fight the urges which are finishing his marriage, pushes away Oliver, whom we know he must have very deep feelings for, in spite of the appalling way that he’s treated him, and takes the only route that his repression will allow – an horrific course of aversion therapy.
We are left with the unsettling truth that both Philip’s and Oliver’s lives will have been scarred for no good reason other than that, even if only for a short while, they fell in love against the existing social mores.
In the modern section of the play, which doesn’t hold back in terms of content, freelance journalist, Oli (Al Weaver) is a serial seeker after anonymous sex whose boyfriend, Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton) has just left him, not being able to cope with his partner’s sexual promiscuity.
To console himself in his newly single state, Oli hits the bottle and sends out for a sexual takeaway in the form of Nazi-dressed BDSM master ‘The Man’, (played for the Stonewall gala by Alastair Buchan, standing in for Mathew Horne), however, Philip comes back unexpectedly, finding the two men together, which only adds to the rift between them.
Oli confides in his slightly self-centred best friend, Sylvia (Hayley Atwell), and in his drunken and suicidal state asks her to stay with him to keep him company.
With Sylvia’s help he sees his way back to something approaching normality, and gets a lead that the aggressively-straight editor of a ‘Lads Mag’ wants him to write a piece on gay men and sex, and in doing so we get one of the most touching parts of the play, as the leery and in-your-face editor, Peter (Alistair Buchan) however brashly and clumsily he comes over, relates the story of his personal connection to losing someone through AIDS. A genuinely touching and affecting part of the play, and all the more so because of the character, and it must be said, the skill of Alastair Buchan who certainly brings a tear to the eye.
Sylvia accompanies Oli to Pride, where he bumps in to Philip, with whom he is still obviously very much in love. I won’t ruin the ending, but suffice to say it didn’t come as very much of a surprise.
The whole is played against Soutra Gilmour’s mirrored set, which contains the constant reflection of the audience, reminding us that although we are there watching, for so many of us it could very well be our own lives we’re seeing up there on stage.
John Clark’s lighting is inventive, using some of the oldest tricking in the theatrical lighting arsenal to great effect, and bringing a depth and subtext to the production, which echoes Alexi Kaye Campbell’s wonderful script.
This is a play which, as the panel discussion that preceded it pointed out, was written in a time of hope that things would change for the better for LGBT people in the UK, and indeed the past five years have seen changes which many would have thought unthinkable in such a short space of time.
However, as I intimated, there are some states where LGBT human rights are travelling in a backwards direction.
Taking their well deserved ovation the cast stand with a dignified stillness each holding a small placard on which is written the simple phrase which sums up the sad times in which we live –
‘To Russia With Love’.