It’s always exciting to see a run, conceived in a Zone 2 Fringe space, make the smooth and sleek transition to the West End. It happened with BU21 on something of a smaller scale, yet is also happening here as this new revival of Boys in the Band, following a well-praised turn at the north London Park Theatre, makes for a speedy run at the Vaudeville Theatre.
This new performance space certainly bears the marks of its predecessor well – the Park Theatre’s brick back wall and metal columns are here lovingly recreated by designer Rebecca Brower (alongside some marvellously well placed culturally styled posters) while the cast return, brimming to inhabit the single apartment space once more.
We follow Mart Crowley’s story, principally, of Michael (Ian Hallard), a gay man nestled deep into New York suburban life, surrounding himself by similarly-orientated men, each celebrating the birthday of Harold (Mark Gatiss), while also navigating various social and sexual conflicts along the way. This is 1960s homosexuality – pre-AIDs, pre-governmental persecution, pre-watershed to a certain extent – almost now something of a period piece, though at the time certainly something that would have been controversially vocal about a topic rarely granted stage time.
As such, the real charm here comes from the consistently top notch humour, delivered by a cast firmly inhabiting distinctly-written and often nuanced characters. Homosexuality is so frequently reduced to trope or stereotype, but Crowley’s underlying tinge of timelessness comes from the distinct humanity of the character problems – unrequited love (exacerbated by the scrutiny surrounding sexuality), questions of commitment, or even the destructive nature of ‘knowing’. We can all feel for these men as, in at least one of their cases, no matter the sexuality, we’ve all felt something similar. That said the show always goes a step further – introducing tantalising (yet sadly unfulfilled) discussions of race, persecution and also the often uninterpretable relationship between homosexuality and masculinity – epoch defining issues it can be said.
Director Adam Penford knows how to skip a merry tune across his stage, getting the best out of each performer while never letting the one-room setting feel too static. He lets Gatiss steal every line he desires, each word dripping with a ripe, oak-barrelled sarcasm ripened over decades, while never letting us sympathise with Hallard’s Michael, knowing that fundamentally the character has some deeply unseemly characteristics.
Boys in the Band may have lost its revolutionary sheen over the decades, but there is a charming semblance to the show – catch it while you can for this brief stint on Fleet Street.