In a world where Russia has apparently been flicking through the Maggie Thatcher Manual for Disposing of Gays, a West End revival of Alexei Kaye Campbell’s rainbow-flag-waving debut play The Pride seems an appropriate response.
Hayley Atwell (Captain America), Harry Hadden-Paton and Al Weaver play Sylvia, Philip and Oliver in both the 1950s and the present day, but not in a straightforward “60 years later” sort of way. In the 1958 portions, Philip and Sylvia are a couple whose marriage is rocked by the arrival of homosexual writer Oliver, whereas in 2008 Oliver and Philip are a separated gay couple united by best friend Sylvia.
However, to reduce the play to a mere comparative study, in which the relative openness of today’s gay relationships holds up favourably to a time in which aversion therapy seemed the only option, would be doing it a disservice. Campbell’s script sharply argues that nothing has really changed – gays were boxed in then, and they’re boxed in now, bound as they are not only by straights’ categorisations but also by their own.
The Möbius strip of the era-hopping narrative makes for some truly gripping theatre, counterbalancing the Celia Johnson rhythms of Atwell’s 1958 housewife with the modern urban fag-hag weighed down by Whole Foods bags.
Gavin and Stacey’s Mathew Horne almost steals the show with a hilarious scene as a uniformed rent boy early on, only to resurface as a quietly horrifying shrink from the past in the second act. Moments shared between Philip and Oliver in the ‘50s are reflected and repeated in the ‘00s, and the differing trajectories of their relationships across time amount to an epic but also movingly intimate love story.
“Intimate” is perhaps what director Jamie Lloyd’s production does best, working within the confines of the relatively small Trafalgar Studios to bring the audience as close to the story as possible. Thanks to Soutra Gilmour’s classy design, the foggily-mirrored set even places the first few rows on stage with the actors.
Like everything, The Pride is not perfect; the second half isn’t quite as strong as the first, and verges on both the mannered and the overly didactic. Even the set design, while appropriately stark, only makes certain scenes look like they’re unfolding in a dance studio rather than, say, a busy magazine office.
These are small gripes, however, particularly with a cast this strong and direction so crisp. Atwell expertly handles the sensitive 1958 Sylvia’s response to a doom-laden marriage, while Hadden-Paton brings a lump to the throat as Philip, whether on the giving or receiving end of pain. But it’s Al Weaver who runs away with the show, turning what could have been a selfish Oliver into someone you truly care for, and want to see happy.
Ultimately, The Pride is as moving as it is funny, and as entertaining a statement on basic human rights as you could hope for. Take that, Putin.
Performed at Trafalgar Studios in London on Friday 23 August 2013.
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