The partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England in 1967 brought about a massive change in society. No longer were gay people forced to live in secret and couples could be open now instead of sharing the ‘love that dare not speak its name’. Of course, societal change didn’t just happen overnight, and even nearly fifty years later, there is still prejudice and homophobes out there. However, in 1968 Colin Spencer decided it was time to show the theatre going public that the law had changed and he wrote, what is often called, the first openly gay play Spitting Image. Nearly fifty years later, the King’s Head Theatre have brought the play back and it is being presented as part of the theatre’s Queer Season.
Tom (Neil Chinneck) and Gary (Alan Grant) are a happy couple, living together and enjoying life in an honest way. True, Tom hasn’t told his parents about his sexuality but otherwise the two of them are very happy. However, Gary has been putting on weight recently. Tom thinks it’s just the old love handles getting out of control but Gary believes the weight gain is something more and that he is actually pregnant. Although Tom points out that this is biologically impossible, Gary is convinced and goes to the local doctor to find out for sure. When the pregnancy is confirmed, Gary and Tom prepare for the arrival of their offspring whilst the NHS and the British government try to work out how to handle this unprecedented situation.
When first produced Spitting Image caused quite a stir and I can fully understand the reasons for this. The idea of two men openly living together and producing offspring must have been really shocking to a nation where, until the year before, gay men ‘hadn’t existed’. The fact that the play is presented as absurdist comedy, taking ideas to their logical, if at times bizarre conclusion, must have added to the reactions of the late 1960s theatre going audience. I’m not so sure that these days, that shock value really exists in the same way and for me it really didn’t work as a story I’m afraid. However, there were some very good performances, and I really liked Allan Grant’s rendition of Gary – firstly as a man trying to make the world, and especially his partner, to believe him then latterly a strong father prepared to do anything to protect those he loved – was really strong and of all the characters, he was the one I really felt for. I’m afraid I can’t say the same about Tom and although Neil Chinneck played him really well, I just never warmed to the character and found him to be a bit selfish and whiney. In fact there were times when I sat wondering why Gary didn’t just kick Tom into touch. The cast also consisted of Amy Ambrose, playing Gary’s friend Sally and, portraying everyone else, Paul Giddings & Rachel Gleaves. I’m not sure this always worked as a plan. Paul and Rachel did well on the whole but there were costume malfunctions and breathlessness caused by running around the back of the stage.
I feel a bit bad being so negative about a show that I was really hoping to enjoy. Once you take away certain parts of the story, there are some really interesting and thought-provoking elements that raise some fascinating points of discussion. Even today, there are still people out there who are prejudiced against gay people and have trouble with same sex couples having children, either as biological parents or through adoption. Nearly fifty years on, some attitudes still haven’t changed and Tom made an interesting point when talking about his work where everyone was supportive and friendly to his face but completely different behind closed doors, attitudes that are still around today.
So, to sum up then. Spitting Image is a brave revival for the King’s Head to bring to the public and, whilst it really didn’t work for me on a personal level, I think it is a play with some interesting themes that deserves its place in the history of LGBT+ culture.
Review by Terry Eastham
As part of 2016 Queer Season King’s Head Theatre presents:
The King’s Head Theatre presents the first major revival of Colin Spencer’s Spitting Image as the headline production of the their 2016 Queer Season. Undoubtedly the UK’s first ever openly gay play, this witty and groundbreaking piece examines the fallout when couple Gary and Tom conceive a child amidst the prejudice and homophobia of sixties London.
The original production at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1968 marked a radical sea change in British society. Homosexuality had been decriminalised the previous year and the passing of the Theatres Act meant that for the first time since 1737, new plays were free from oppressive government censorship. It was met with acclaim, transferring to the West End’s Duke of York Theatre, and moral outrage in equal measure.
Kings Head Theatre
115 Upper Street, London, N1 1QN
Box Office: 0207 226 8561 I firstname.lastname@example.org
2– 27 August I Tuesday – Saturday 19.00 I Sunday 15.00
Tickets 2 August: £10
Tickets 3-5 August £14
Tickets 6-27 August 2015 £15 – £25
Written by Colin Spencer
Directed by Gareth Corke
Lighting designer Nic Farman
Set designer Simon Wells