Theatre Coming Clean
Trafalgar Studios, London
Until 2 February
Kevin Elyot will always be remembered for My Night With Reg. However, Coming Clean, first seen at the Bush in 1982 and now transferred to the West End in a King’s Head revival, marked his debut and reveals his capacity to explore different aspects of gay culture while exploiting the standard tropes of domestic drama. The fit is nothing like as perfect as in his later work but, as this production reminds us, the promise is palpably there.
It is significant that the play first appeared in the same year as The Real Thing. Although nothing like as structurally ingenious as Tom Stoppard’s play, it deals with the same subject: the pain of infidelity. Tony, an aspiring writer, and Greg, an American academic, have settled into a comfortable, quasi-monogamous relationship after cohabiting for five years. Their lives are disrupted when they hire a young cleaner, an out-of-work actor named Robert. His every move seems to infuriate Greg, whose jokes he tactlessly caps during a disastrous dinner party, while Tony shamelessly flirts with this Adonislike houseboy. Unsurprisingly, it is Robert who drives a wedge between the long-term lovers.
Elyot frequently falls back on the stock devices of the traditional West End play. One of the lovers unexpectedly returns from a weekend away to discover his partner in flagrante. Elyot also introduces a flamboyant neighbour, William, whose purpose seems to be to provide comic relief – until he gets beaten up by a piece of rough trade. But what Elyot captures well is the contest between emotional commitment and sexual freedom. He suggests that Tony and Greg, while enjoying one-night stands, are bound together by custom, shared interests and unspoken love: the realisation that one of them has been engaged in a longterm affair poignantly reveals the mix of hurt, wounded pride and social embarrassment prompted by betrayal.
Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production rightly preserves the play’s period feel: this is not only a pre-Aids world, but one where a pint of beer costs 90p. Amanda Mascarenhas’s design also catches the shabby quality of a Kentish Town flat decorated by a faded portrait of the Queen Mum and with wine stains embedded in the carpet. The performances are mostly good. Lee Knight is outstanding as Tony, showing how his behaviour shifts according to the company he is in: with his lover, Greg, he is all devoted sobriety, whereas with his outrageous friend, William, he acquires a veneer of head-tossing camp. Stanton Plummer-Cambridge also lends Greg the right workorientated earnestness, and it’s more Elyot’s fault than his that it’s hard to credit that the character has enjoyed half the gay men in London. Tom Lambert, resembling a young Michael York, pins down the cleaner’s mix of calculation and sensuality, and Elliot Hadley, at one point enthusiastically gobbling a cream eclair, never knowingly underacts as the next-door disco-queen.
Later plays such as The Inheritance and Angels in America have offered a more comprehensive view of gay relationships. But Elyot, as far as Britain goes, was a pioneer in the field, and his debut play shows that, whatever your orientation, few things are more devastating than sexual deception.
It preserves the play’s period feel: this is not only a preAids world, but one where a pint of beer is 90p
Love triangle … Stanton PlummerCambridge, Tom Lambert, Lee Knight