I confess it at once. I have no idea what a “chill party” is. I do not know what “Tina” is. I do not know what “Slamming” is. Accordingly, I wonder if I am the intended audience member for writer/director Peter Darney’s new play 5 Guys Chillin’ which is now playing its premiere season at the King’s Head Theatre.

Given his reaction to DV8’s superb John at the National Theatre, one imagines that Quentin Letts’ head would explode if he saw this brave, bold, and thoroughly raw-nerve production (although, to be fair, perhaps not, given the King’s Head Theatre is not subsidised in the way the National Theatre is), and yet as this voyeuristic gay sex verbatim(ish) theatre piece played out, it was impossible not to think about what Quentin Letts would make of it.

Because Letts stands for ordinary people – or likes to think he does, as long as they are conservative, male and white – and fair enough. But actually, that is precisely the audience that this play is intended for. Gay men, presumably anyway, will already know about what happens to these five men, two couples and one interloper, at this chill party. Not necessarily the specifics, but the generality.

There will be sex. There will be drugs. There will be talk. There will be one-upmanship. There will be shared intimacy. There will be mobile phones. There will be uncoupled couples coupling with others. There will be excess. There will be laughter. There will be tears. There will be naked honesty. There will be sex.

Whether there will be fulfilment or gratification or happiness – well, there’s the rub.

And that, really, is the point. 5 Guys Chillin’ is a play about loneliness, happiness, love, lust and pain – as so many plays are. Hamlet, for one. Les Miserables for another. The themes are universal; it’s the setting which is exotic. Well, exotic to those who are not part of it.

The programme reveals that Peter Darney has taken over 50 hours of anonymous interviews and cut and amalgamated them “to try and create the feel of 5 men talking to each other at a party. No words have been added or changed, and the text remains true to the sentiment expressed by the respondent, but the order, structures and combinations of the interviewee’s responses have been combined and changed.” Verbatim-ish.

From a dramaturgical point of view, the 80 minute presentation occasionally drifts into unreality waters: events occur and things are said which awkwardly strain the limits of credulity. But, as you sit there, watching these nearly naked men bare their inner selves, you cannot but wonder if the awkwardness is yours. Are they just brutally, candidly honest in a “get-a-grip” kind of way? Or is there something missing in the way these stories are told?

The truth, it seems to me, is somewhere between those extremes. The savage rawness of the words is gratifying, alarming, educational, revealing and captivating; but there is a subtlety, a texturing, a dramatic sensibility which is missing. The piece needs more work – to both make it smoother, and to make it tougher by making it smoother. When the audience is totally, completely swept away in the hedonistic experience of the encounter of these five men, when the backstories don’t seem obviously to be backstories, when the segues are sexually charged or devastatingly intimate, and therefore relaxed and insightful, this will be a major work.

It both shines a light on a corner of society which is misunderstood and unfairly vilified and, examines the rules, conventions, habits and language of a particular form of sexual expression. When you realise, as I did at some point in the latter part of the play, that the kinds of experiences the characters were discussing were the sorts of experiences that might be discussed in a football locker room or a banker’s pub on a Friday night or a Hen’s do in Malaga – not the specifics, obviously, but the spectrum of experiences, desires, regrets and passions – you appreciate the real value of works like this.

They broaden horizons, create empathy and foster understanding. And given the new configuration of the King’s Head Theatre, the action all occurs literally within spitting distance, so close you can watch the sweat droplets form on perfectly chiselled chests and the hairs stand up on arms. Like it or not, you are part of the Chill Party.

Not all of the performers seem at ease in their roles. It’s not clear that all of the cast are comfortable with what their characters are called upon to do here. Except in one fleeting instant, there is no nudity, which seems absurd given the setting. So much of the work here would be profoundly more unsettling and honest, if the chillers were nude. Equally, and just as surprisingly, there is not much tactile contact. Perhaps that is part of this world, but absent explanation it seems bizarre.

But there is hypnotic movement. Characters meld together in lustful, carnal embrace; characters dance together or alone; bodies fuse and melt away. This is all expertly managed by Chris Cuming (yes, aptly named) whose supervision of the movement of the group and individuals is insightful as well as confronting.

Cheesy it is not; happily.

The star performance of the evening comes from Elliot Hadley. His character, R, is the most complete, the most searingly honest, the most indulgent, and the most scarred. Hadley is exquisite; funny one moment, caustic the next, then sweet, then brittle: it’s a fully formed characterisation of a person forged through pain and heartbreak. Devastatingly effective.

The other actors – Tom Holloway, Damien Hughes, Michael Matrovski and Siri Patel – all achieve varying degrees of success, but none are as wholeheartedly committed to the play as Hadley. Some need to loosen their inhibitions, others need to stop “acting” and just “be”. All can learn from Hadley’s immersion in the text and characterisation.

This is as confronting as theatre gets – sexual acts are simulated; drugs are taken; genitalia is unleashed – but it is as rewarding as it is confronting. Part of the point of theatre is to tell tales about life which would otherwise never be told. 5 Guys Chillin’ certainly delivers in that respect.

Bold, brave programming. Well worth a look.

P.S. I now know what Tina and Slamming are – so the play is educational as well…

Four stars

REVIEW OVERVIEW
5 Guys Chillin’
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.