Outlaws to In-Laws is a major achievement and deserves not only a long run here in London but much wider circulation in theatres across the land, where the social climate is still perhaps less accepting. This is the kind of theatre that has the capacity to inspire and change lives here and now, as well as remind us of a shared, if often traumatic, past.

OutlawsMost of the time it is not hard for a reviewer to place a scrim of distance between himself and the subject matter up for commentary. There are occasions, however, when a combination of common references from your own life floats past like a continual sequence of distracting cultural debris triggering little bursts of memory often at emotional variance to the tone of what you are viewing. This was my truth, and that of many in the audience, during a sequence of seven short new plays devoted to the last seventy years of the experience of gay men in England.

Each of these plays gave a different slice of felt gay male life, starting with the Coronation year of 1953, and then on to 1965, 1977, 1984, 1997, 2004 & finally 2017. There are twenty characters in all, played by six actors, on a minimalist but more than adequate set, continually rearranged by the actors during brief black-outs. There are plenty of thematic links and some references to characters across the plays. There is even a ring, a ‘McGuffin’ that transfers from character to character ending up as the ring to seal a wedding in the final play. Director Mary Franklin, has tied together what plausibly can be, but left each of the segments to speak for themselves too.

OutlawsClearly the overall transition described here is one from exclusion to acceptance, but it is no easy progressive parable by any means. Many other issues, whether of race or class or social inequality get caught up in the narratives, and many new problems and tensions emerge even though, or perhaps even because, the legal framework for gay life becomes more accommodating. Some of the best and most poignant moments revolve around the betrayals and acts of self-hatred that an era of repression, as much as oppression, can create.

The first play ‘Happy & Glorious’, by Philip Meeks, is set in a building that overlooks Westminster Abbey. There is a lot of brittle chat in the manner of Rattigan and Coward, a wonderful bravura drag impersonation of the late Queen Mary by Paul Carroll, and a stand-off between the case for conformity and self-assertion, that seems a little too contrived. The piece as a whole seemed under-rehearsed in comparison with the other contributions and the cast less at home and comfortable with the period style.

‘Mr Tuesday’ is Jonathan Harvey’s contribution to the medley, set in 1965 on the cusp of decriminalisation. This is an exquisitely written piece suffused with the bruised tenderness and anguished choices we are familiar with from elsewhere in his work. Here love curdles into blackmail, and the victim turns the tables on his conflicted lover but loses his sense of self-worth and integrity at the same time. Jack Bence is absolutely to the pitch of the apparently powerless but ultimately resourceful young man of the title, but Elliot Balchin is less convincingly authentic as the policeman who cannot reconcile his own inner and outer contradictions.

Outlaws‘Reward’ by Jonathan Kemp is a fine piece of sustained writing that captures the splashy, contradictory, emotionally raw, sprawling disconnects of the late-1970s with real power. It is the story of an unlikely affair born of a bus-stop meeting between Spike (Jack Bence), a skin-head who may be a member of the National Front, and Donald (Michael Duke), a young black, middle-class student. The growth of their intimacy is exquisitely charted in physical and emotional terms of a convincingly authentic awkwardness: the moment when Donald first strokes Spike’s shaved head is breath-catching, and the treatment of Spike’s illiteracy is very moving too. Thuggish violence from Paul Carroll’s Terry is all the more unsettling for being non-literal: all in all there was a larger play waiting to emerge from this deftly sketched outline.

We are at the Tory Party conference in Patrick Wilde’s ‘1984’. Alex Marlow’s Tommy and Elliot Balchin’s Alan are at odds over the question of how far one should tell truth to power. This is a fair enough rehearsal of the some of the core arguments of the decade, though the relationships at the centre of it are only lightly delineated and the character of Peter, a vagrant/mugger, seems a mere device. Melodrama beckons at the end.

With press night falling on the exact twentieth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana it seemed all the more appropriate that ‘Princess Die’ by Matt Harris focused on the experiences of Di-impersonator, Shane, (Alex Marlow). This was a powerful exploration of how both fragility and tough survival instincts can co-exist, with AIDS, an underwear model and basic questions of fidelity all thrown into the mix. Marlow’s brittle central performance held it all together memorably.

OutlawsPerhaps the finest piece of naturalistic writing across the whole evening was ‘Brothas 2’ by Topher Campbell. Taking us back to the early days of internet dating, we got to know ripped, swaggering Dwayne (Michael Duke) and his overweight chum Femi (Myles Devontè) as they knocked back booze and flirted with online contacts (whose profiles and texts we saw projected backstage). This was witty, free-wheeling, writing that the two players exploited to the full, reserving a neat twist for the final moments.

‘The Last Gay Play’ by Joshua Val Martin was a strange confection with which to end the sequence: appropriate on one level, in that it took us right up to the present day and the pros and cons of marriage as an institution; but less convincing an ending than it might have been because of the thin characterisation of couple at the centre of events and the displacement of focus onto the priest and father of one of them – another fine performance by Paul Carroll. The emotional core of this playlet revolved around the father-son relationship. It would probably have been better to focus on that rather than bring in other themes as well.

This evening, like a cabaret sequence, is inevitably uneven in quality and tone, but the many fine performances and the useful attempts to integrate what can be given continuity make for a continually absorbing meditation on how the lives of gay men in metropolitan England have changed and remained the same in the last seventy years.

Outlaws to In-Laws is a major achievement and deserves not only a long run here in London but much wider circulation in theatres across the land, where the social climate is still perhaps less accepting. This is the kind of theatre that has the capacity to inspire and change lives here and now, as well as remind us of a shared, if often traumatic, past.

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…