A couple of years ago, I saw that “The Pride” was being revived at the Sheffield Studio, directed by Richard Wilson, and, reading the promotional blurb, thought it sounded like a fascinating play. Unfortunately we just couldn’t fit it in to our busy schedule. “You can’t see everything”, as Mrs Chrisparkle frequently advises me. Then I saw that it was on at the Trafalgar Studio last year, but, again, we couldn’t get around to it – and it now featured one of my favourite actors, Mathew Horne. The post West-End tour wasn’t coming anywhere near us, but the enforced absence of Mrs C on the second leg of her American Business Odyssey meant I would have more time to travel to a distant theatre to see it. Thus is it was I took the long trek by train and tube to Richmond last Monday.
It was also about time that I visited this theatre. It’s extremely beautiful, one of those old Victorian palaces dedicated to the Thespian Muse. As it’s part of the ATG group and I have one of their lovely membership cards that gives you 10% discounts, when I got to Richmond I thought I’d check the theatre out and see if they had a restaurant or a café, as I would be needing some sustenance after my long journey. Alas, no. Just a bar. Do they serve sandwiches, I asked? Crisps, came the reply. So, reflecting sadly on the loss of 10% off my dining bill that night, I sought out the local Pret for a baguette and a coffee; quite a soulless, desolate place as it turned out.
The bar at the theatre is long and narrow, but with a nice range of wines and a surprisingly large number of chairs, tables and benches on which to perch and peruse your programme. Inside the auditorium, the decoration around the stage and the walls is baroquely beautiful, but the chairs themselves are a bit unyielding. The stage is really high, so from Row D of the stalls I did a lot of looking up, but that also meant that if you had a tall chap in front of you, you would still have a very clear view of the action.
Anyway, the play’s the thing. This is Alexi Kaye Campbell’s first play, originally staged by the Royal Court in 2008 and already coming back for revivals, which must be an indication that it’s going to last a long time. Unlike the Sheffield version, this production is directed by Jamie Lloyd, who also directed it back in 2008. It’s a beautifully written, complexly structured, robust comparison between a 1950s illicit gay relationship between Oliver and Philip (who is married to Sylvia) with a 2000s open gay relationship between Philip and Oliver (whose best friend is Sylvia). They may have the same names, but they are not the same characters; and scenes of yesterday and today criss-cross each other on the stage with remarkable ease and a telling sense of juxtaposition.
The 1950s affair is a destructive thing. Oliver thinks he’s found true love, only to have his hopes dashed and his newly established self-knowledge ridiculed and exposed. Philip suffers from having that part of him he has been fighting all his life shamefully revealed; and both he and Sylvia have to endure the breakdown of their marriage, she with the added burden of having introduced the two men to each other and dealing with her subsequent sense of abandonment. The 2000s relationship is more positive, even though Philip and Oliver’s relationship is extremely rocky and Philip walks out; but they meet again at a Gay Pride event where they observe the self-confidence of everyone around them, which leads on to a very optimistic ending that looks forward to an accepting, non-prejudicial future. What links the two separate stories is Oliver’s sense of “The Pride”, essentially the ability to be oneself, and what it means to the six main characters (that’s the three main characters, times two).
It’s a very cunning set, with two hidden doors in a glass backdrop, the surface of which looks as though it’s been artificially antiqued like one of those Victorian mirrors that has lost some of its back lining, so that it’s part reflective and part see-through; a visual metaphor no doubt for a mixture of the clearly obvious and the secretly hidden. An almost violent use of light and sound startles and disconcerts you as characters are suddenly revealed or concealed behind the glass. Those are the harsh moments, which are tempered by the softer transitions from scene to scene where one actor will enter the set to assume their place for the beginning of the next scene, whilst the previous scene is still finishing, thereby giving the whole play a great feeling of flowing inexorability.
It’s acted throughout with great commitment and sensitivity by a terrific little cast. I was really impressed by Al Weaver as Oliver – the 1950s version being polite and respectable, with just a hint of those “mannerisms” that Philip would later complain about, then later with a sad guiltiness yet still retaining complete integrity throughout the whole exposure of the relationship. His modern Oliver is 100% out and proud, portraying the character’s addiction to sex with strangers with humour and ineffectual regret, whilst also revealing his lack of self-confidence by his total reliance on Sylvia and his clinging to Philip. It’s a beautiful performance: funny, heart-breaking and dignified. I really enjoyed how he flipped between his two characters with great fluidity in an instant; and throughout the evening he had his hand and wrist strapped up, presumably due to some injury, so to perform like that when not being properly match-fit is remarkable.
Harry Hadden-Paton is also superb as Philip, especially the 1950s version – a chummy, confident, sociable gentleman at first, visibly completely wrong-footed by his sudden realisation of attraction to Oliver, stumbling through his cover-up and then taking it out on Sylvia by cruelly over-reacting to her questions. The stress that the subsequent relationship puts on him brings out a surprisingly violent streak, and the horrific impact of the final scene before the interval has you clenching your teeth in shared agony. The modern Philip is perhaps not quite so fully written and you don’t have quite such a grasp of what the character is like – apart from being generally decent and unable to cope with Oliver’s promiscuity. Naomi Sheldon, a brilliant Hermia in last year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is painfully good as the 1950s Sylvia, her beautifully clipped Standard English accent suggesting the epitome of post-war respectability, slowly putting all the pieces together to come to a conclusion about Philip’s odd behaviour. When she finally confronts Oliver about the affair, it’s a fantastically moving speech with so many conflicting emotions bubbling over one another but all kept as quiet and respectable as the times dictated – a really stunning performance. She’s also excellent as the modern Sylvia, trying to juggle her own life and hopes for a new relationship whilst maintaining and managing Oliver’s dependence.
Mathew Horne provides additional light and shade with the three minor roles, all of whom make a big impact on the stage – the Nazi (I shan’t explain how a Nazi crops up in the story, suffice to say it’s both disturbing and hilarious), the Lad’s Mag editor Peter, and Philip’s doctor. I loved his performance as Peter – a riot of Saaf Laandaan laddishness, very jokey, a true cock-of-the-walk; but when it comes to discussing how he saw his Uncle Harry’s eyes for the last time, it really brought a lump to the throat. And he was perfect as the doctor, clinically aloof from Philip’s distraught and self-disgusted voluntary patient at the aversion therapy clinic, as he explains in cold detail the heartless procedure Philip will undertake; a stand-out scene that was just too tragic for words.
It’s a very thought-provoking, emotional play, benefitting from superb performances and an intense, thoughtful production. For their final curtain call, the cast come on holding placards that read “To Russia with Love”, showing that there are still places in the world where the play’s call for acceptance and equality falls on stony ground. There’s only a few more performances left at Richmond this week, but I’m sure this play will continue to resurface every so often – it’s too fascinating not to!