We waited so long for Harold to turn up to his own birthday party that I wondered if we – or he – had got the wrong night.
The Boys in the Band were assembled on stage at London’s Park Theatre and making inroads into the booze and a gorgeous Cowboy, already unwrapped, was ready and waiting.
Michael, determined to stay sober to avoid a nasty personality change, was urging everyone to tuck in to the cracked crab. Partners Larry and Hank weren’t speaking, Emory was being outrageous as usual towards Bernard, and Donald was stressed.
By the time Harold and his hairpiece did arrive the evening had already turned into the party from hell.
Mart Crowley’s landmark drama is a bittersweet affair that has you laughing out loud and then gasping with shock at crass, vile, nasty barbs that comes pouring out of the immensely unlikable host’s mouth.
The dialogue swings from light and warmly witty to bitchy, waspish and downright offensive.
Written (and set) a year before the Stonewall Riots in America, The Boys In The Band are a group of gay men, supposedly friends, who gather at writer Michael’s apartment to celebrate a birthday.
But the night goes terribly wrong when Michael’s homophobic university chum, Alan, turns up unexpectedly, and the host ignores his own advice and becomes horribly boorish.
What is soon apparent is how bitterly unhappy everyone is with their sexuality. The only one in the room to be in any way comfortable in his own (rather stunning) skin is the beautiful but brainless hustler, Cowboy (Jack Derges), who has been bought for $20 by Emory as a present for Harold.
“And what do you do for $20?” he’s asked. “I do my best.”
It’s difficult to imagine how much life has changed for the gay community. Up until 1968 homosexuality was illegal in the UK and had only limited acceptance, socially and in law, in America.
Crowley’s “band members” have difficulty living openly as gay at a time when “coming out” in Britain still referred to a Debutante at the start of The Season.
Donald is in therapy and prone to stress attacks when he’s in New York city, Larry wants to sleep around while his new maths teacher partner, Hank, yearns for commitment – particularly as he’s come out of the closet and left a wife and two kids to be with him.
Emory, camp as they come, sashays around the apartment and makes “Uncle Tom” jokes at the expense of Bernard, who takes it in good stead. Emory plays up to the fairy queen stereotype until a truly poignant scene when he reveals a broken heart and a life lived alone.
And Michael is a mess. He tried to be straight in college, dating women, and sharing a room with Alpha male, Alan, but it was a sham nod to conformity.
He’s up to his eyes in debt, despite the swanky apartment and cashmere sweaters casually discarded on the floor, and is in a fragile relationship with Harold.
He’s also trying to stay off the booze, admitting to Donald that he becomes an aggressive bitch after one too many. It’s only much later that we hear the uncomfortable truth.
Michael gets a phone call from a distraught Alan who is in the city and wants to come over. Panic.
When the tuxedo-wearing Alan (former Midsomer Murders cop John Hopkins, looking every inch a Bond in the uniform) arrives he is appalled – particularly by Emory. “He seems like a goddamn little pansy!” he rages.
One awkward situation after another until, finally, Harold turns up, and this black comedy becomes a whole lot darker.
Mark Gatiss walks through the door in appalling curly wig, cream polo-neck, velvet jacket and tinted glasses. He takes one look at Cowboy and roars with laughter.
Gatiss as Harold, a self-confessed “ugly, pock-marked, Jew, fairy” gets to deliver some acutely observed, arch, one-liners as he watches, with a disdaining sneer, Michael (his real life husband Ian Hallard) bully the others.
There are no balloons and ice cream at this party. Instead, a series of confessionals expose lives that have been lived in sorrow, anguish and regret. It works a treat as a framing device for the play.
James Holmes’ Emory steals much of the limelight, and audience sympathy, when he admits how his first love led to ridicule and shame. Meanwhile Nathan Nolan’s Hank, so square in his work suit, typified a generation of gay men forced to live a lie.
Its razor sharp dialogue is brilliantly funny and desperately sad, thought-provoking and beautifully performed. The Boys In The Band is as relevant today as it was in 1968 – though thankfully we’ve ditched the G-Plan furniture and attitude.
Running at Park Theatre until October 30 before touring to The Lowry, Salford (Nov 3-6); Theatre Royal, Brighton (Nov 8-12); and West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (Nov 14-19.)
The Boys In The Band
Mart Crowley’s razor sharp dialogue in The Boys In The Band is brilliantly funny and desperately sad, thought-provoking and beautifully performed.