Martin Sherman, Gently Down the Stream (directed by Sean Mathias, Park Theatre, Finsbury Park)
Forty years ago, Martin Sherman wrote the play Bent, which in its original version starred Ian McKellen (before he publically came out) and Tom Bell and was set in 1930s Berlin as Hitler was strengthening his power. McKellen’s then partner, Sean Mathias, directed a revival and a film version – although I have I suspect a false memory of seeing it on TV. Now Mathias has directed Sherman’s new play, which ranges across the last eighty years. It debuted last year with Harvey Fierstein in the lead, a production I wish I’d seen, directed by Mathias.
It has been revived, also by Mathias, in a tiny space in Finsbury Park. Beau (Jonathan Hyde) is a bar pianist, in his early sixties, originally from New Orleans but self-exiled to London, who early this century has an assignation with a late twenty-something, bipolar lawyer, Rufus (Ben Allen). Rufus is interested in old cabaret singers and Beau’s history, including a relationship between Beau and James Baldwin. Beau, probably alcoholic, is happy with his one night stand and wants to protect himself from the hurt of a doomed relationship, but is persuaded to allow Rufus to move in, on the understanding that Rufus can see other men. Rufus begins to interview Beau, discovering the easily lost history of gay men. Then, a few years later, Rufus meets and falls in love with a younger performance artist Harry (Harry Lawtey).
It’s a touching and sad story – Beau survived through the plague years of the HIV crisis (and talks about Larry Kramer) and he is traumatised by the horrors of the 1973 UpStairs Lounge arson attack on a Louisiana gay bar. He expects pain – he is thrown by Rufus’s expectation of the right to happiness. But, paradoxically, there was an island of happiness, which yields the play’s title – the tolerance of a bar as the Astor Hotel and a night in the YMCA during the Second World War. Such moments, however, seem fleeting and he is not convinced that civil partnerships (which he acidly observes end up being neither) or marriages are the right models for gay men. They are meant to be outlaws not inlaws. But perhaps Rufus can heal him.
There is the ghost of another gently going, as Beau ages – going gently into that good night. By the end of his play he is in his seventies and on Grindr rather than Gaydar. Again he has an acid observation, young people have caught up with him. There is hope for him, even if another relationship faces an uncertain future. Because relationships are uncertain.
Hyde is a dominant figure on the stage, even as I tried to parse his southern accent softened by years down and out of sight in Paris and London. He has to be the memory man, the witness to history, and as with The Inheritance (a very different pair of plays) there is a tendency to speechifying. He gets to hold the stage on his own and he just about pulls it off. Allen oscillates between adorable and annoying, which seems appropriate, in the end convincing. Even Lawtey, who has the smallest of the three roles, complements rather than muddies the threesome and represents a newer generation of gay identity, seemingly assimilated despite the tattoos and muscle vest. Curiously he is the most conservative of the three, his crystal meth days contrasting with Beau’s consumption of acid and dope. It felt like it must have been lust at first sight – and at first I was reminded of Fierstein’s line from Torch Song Trilogy, directed at a youthful Matthew Broderick: “If you have an IQ over thirty, then there is no God”. But the performance is able to progress with some real depths even if I felt a certain anxiety about him being the other man.
Sherman is eighty (McKellen is 79) and is evidently a bridge to our pasts that all too often have no historians. Via Beau he talks about the incredible militancy, creativity and advocacy that came out of men like Kramer and other American campaigners, and those in London and Paris, during the dark days of HIV. I’ve argued with others about the irony of this battle in the face of oppression – perhaps civil rights would have been fought for anyway and the cost was too, too high. Many were lost in the fight to be normal.