70 years is, according the bible, the amount of time that a person has on earth – Psalm 90, verse 10: “The days of our years are three score and ten.” Of course, in reality, people often live much longer. But, over the course of seven decades its amazing how much the world in which we live can change and this is the central message of Outlaws to In-Laws which is part of the centrepiece of the King’s Head Theatre’s Queer Festival 17.
Outlaws to In-Laws is not a single play but is an evening comprising of seven plays by individual authors, each taking place in a separate decade between the 1950s and 2010s. The first, Happy and Glorious by Philip Meeks take place on the day of the Queen’s coronation in 1953. In a ‘gentleman’s club’ overlooking Westminster Abbey, Edward (Alex Marlow) and Peter (Elliot Balchin) are welcoming a new member in the shape of Dennis (Myles Devonté) a young black man who is a complete innocent in the underground world of gay men in 1950s Britain. Despite the law, both Peter and Edward seem happy as they are. Even drag queen Arthur (Paul Carroll) seems content despite his recent brush with the law. As the Queen is crowned, the men have no doubt that for homosexuals, the new Elizabethan era will not change life one jot for them.
Move forward to Liverpool in 1965 and Jonathan Harvey’s Mister Tuesday. Two men, Jimmy (Elliot Balchin) and Peter (Jack Bence) are sitting in bed relaxing. It is obviously a post coital moment and both gentlemen should be feeling relaxed and chilled after their time together. But they aren’t, and the reasons for this become obvious very quickly. Both men have secrets to keep from each other and the world outside and both know more than they should about the other. What is the future of the two young men who, if only they had met a couple of years later may have found their lives to be completely different?
1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and we enter the world of Reward by Jonathan Kemp. On a London street, two men are waiting for a bus. Donald (Michael Duke) is a young, well dressed black man, waiting patiently book in hand, is joined by Spike (Jack Bence) a young skinhead who, in order to make himself comfortable, has dragged a discarded sofa over to the bus stop. The two boys tentatively start to chat in a way that would definitely not be approved of by Spike’s skinhead mates, and especially his friend Terry (Paul Carroll)
Move forward and the Conservative Party conference provides the backdrop to Patrick Wilde’s 1984. At the Grand Hotel, waiter Tommy (Alex Marlow) is having a break, drinking some purloined gin, when he is joined by his old friend – and current Tory speech writer – Alan (Elliot Balchin). The two of them are no longer close and politically, they could not be further away from each other. One is living with the AIDS crises whilst the other does not even acknowledge it. Maybe the intercession of would-be thief Peter (Jack Bence) will change things for both men.
Following the interval, we enter the year 1997. There is a new government and in Princess Die by Matt Harris, The Queen of Hearts is emulated by a young drag queen called Shane (Alex Marlow). However, Shane has made a huge mistake on a night out with his boyfriend Tyler (Myles Devonté). Returning home alone, Shane seeks solace in drugs and suddenly finds his fantasies coming to life in the immaculate shape of underwear model Calvin (Elliot Balchin). Can Calvin make Shane realise what he has done and help him to save his romance or is Calvin but a figment of Shane’s drug addled mind?
Two young black gay men, alcohol and a computer are the ingredients for Brothas 2.0 by Topher Campbell. Its 2004 and the internet has brought a new way of connecting with other men. As Dwayne (Michael Duke) and Femi (Myles Devonté) sit drinking, they browse the various profiles of other men looking for a hook-up. Both boys are very ‘street’ in their actions and words but both are also not exactly what they seem. Dwayne is very fussy about who he speaks too online and despite Femi’s protestations, Dwayne seems to find something wrong with everyone who tries to contact him. Until a certain profile appears which changes his mind.
Finally, it is 2017 and in Joshua Val Martin’s The Last Gay Play the dream of a church wedding has finally come true for Robin (Jack Bence) and his partner Zak (Michael Duke). Not only are they getting married in a church but the celebrant for the ceremony will be Robin’s father Ted (Paul Carroll). As pre-wedding nerves kick in, Robin and his Dad have some serious things to say to each other. Does the answer to all the questions lie in a ring, first seen back in 1953?
Wow, seven plays in two hours – with a fifteen-minute interval – is a lot to take in at one showing. With each play lasting, average, fifteen minutes, the writers and actors had to do a fantastic job of getting their characters established and stories told. And, on the whole, this they did with style.
With seven shows, each member of the audience is going to have their particular favourite and the one that doesn’t quite work for them. Having written about each of them today, I’m actually surprised to find that my favourite was Reward. Without giving anything away, the subject matter, and very authentic 1970s language should have been a total turn off but, the writing was pretty amazing completely took me surprise as the story unfolded. At no point did it go the way I thought it would, given the characters involved. I also thought this was the strongest acting-wise with Michael, Paul and particularly Jack Bence completely believable in their respective roles.
On the flip side, the play I had most trouble connecting with was Brothas 2.0 which, despite some fine acting from Michael and Myles really didn’t work for me. Maybe it was because it was a shade too real but having been on the receiving end of some of the comments made by the boys, I found the play irritating. Personally, I think it would be nice if just once a playwright let the fat gay man actually win and not just be a cheap joke element guaranteed to raise some laughter. Of course, this is a personal opinion and did not detract from the evening as a whole.
Anyhow, full credit to the cast of Outlaws to In-Laws for their performances throughout. Normally, when you see a night of short plays, each one has its own individual cast but here, we had six actors playing a total of twenty very varied roles. A really impressive feat that they do very well. One final thing about acting. There is a real art in not moving and not all actors can do it well, but hats off to Elliot Balchin for his ability to sit centre of the stage in just a pair of CKs without any movement to the point where you almost forget he was there. I also really liked the idea of the ‘Ring’ moving through the years which was a lovely way of connecting the individual plays. Having one Director in Mary Franklin and a single, flexible set by P J Mcevoy also helped make the evening feel connected and Robin Lill’s costumes were wonderfully era specific.
To sum up then. Outlaws to In-Laws is a most appropriately titled show that takes a slice through seven decades of gay men’s life with a very honest forthright approach that shows not only how far we have come but, to an extent, what there is still to do.
Review by Terry Eastham
Outlaws to In-laws, which gets its world premiere at London’s King’s Head Theatre from 29 August – 23 September, is dedicated to the struggles and joys of gay men connecting with each other over the last seven decades.
From the darkest days of criminality to the legalising of gay marriage, it features seven short plays by leading gay writers that represent each of the decades from the 1950s to the present day.
Outlaws to In-Laws
King’s Head Theatre
29th August to 23rd September 2017