Chemsex is apparently prevalent in the gay community, and every week, there are lots of gay men attending chillin’ sessions where drugs and sex are the order of the day and hang the consequences. Unfortunately, the consequences can be quite dramatic and there has been a large rise in STDs and a lot of broken dreams as the pursuit of hedonism at any price takes its toll. There have been various books and plays written about chemsex parties and one of the most powerful is Peter Darney’s award-winning verbatim play 5 Guys Chillin’ which is back at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington.
There isn’t really a story to speak of in reality as there is no clear narrative, just five men (David Palmstrom, Gareth Watkins, George Bull, George Fletcher and Tom Ratcliffe) meeting in an apartment with the intention of taking drugs and having sex with each other. Over the course of the evening, the men talk together and we learn of their various experiences on the gay scene and in the world of those that attend chill-out parties such as this one.
Not having a definitive narrative makes the story difficult to review. However, there is a timeline to the evening from the heady excitement of the arrival of the various participants and the first lines of coke, through to later as the drugs get harder and the stories get darker, until the final moments when time is frozen and the show ends in a way that was both unexpected and fascinating, making a strong call on the skill and ability of the actors.
As far as characters go, the most fascinating, for me, was undoubtedly ‘PJ’ – there are no names in the show – played by George Bull. Of all the characters in the show, I found PJ’s story to be the most interesting. Without giving too much away, PJ was the person with whom I identified the most, especially the self-criticism and the way his upbringing and societal pressure affected his life as a gay man. The other characters were nicely drawn and, as the script came from experiences of five men writer Peter Darney “met” on gay social network app Grindr, very believable. This made some of the stories they told almost heartbreaking to hear. This was particularly true with the young ‘twink’ of the group ‘R’ played extremely well by Tom Ratcliffe, and there were times when his tales almost reduced me to tears.
I definitely felt there was a bias in the writing against chemsex. The moments when the boys talked about the excitement of things that happened when on chems were few and always tempered by a negative story or change in the atmosphere. However, that is understandable as ultimately, chemsex is not something to be encouraged or glamorised. One of my problems with the production was the missed opportunities – possibly as a consequence of the verbatim nature of the script. For example, there was an explosive, and fully justified exchange about the casual racism often found on dating apps, but there was no mention of the ageism and body fascism that is also prevalent on the same apps. In a way that is understandable as, all five of the actors had great bodies and, with one exception, looked young and, as characters, would probably be judgemental on the apps.
The staging of 5 Guys Chillin’ works well, and Director Peter Darney, along with Lighting Designer Sherry Coenen, use the limited space of the King’s Head thrust stage extremely well and, the audience are so close to the action that at times it almost felt voyastic to be watching without any involvement, almost like looking through a window from the outside. As a pretty vanilla kind of guy, I had trouble identifying with some of the stories painted by the characters but that didn’t take away from them. By the end though ,it was obvious to me, that, just like most of us, what these guys really wanted was a proper relationship, it was just their method of killing time until it arrived that was iffy.
5 Guys Chillin’ is not for everyone. It deals with the subject of chemsex between gay men in rather graphic and explicit detail. There is humour in the script but, at the same time, the dark side of chemsex is never far from the surface. There were moments when I laughed out loud and moments where I wished I could have been able to stop myself listening. Ultimately, a fascinating tale that, over the course of roughly 75 minutes, told me more than I probably need to know about chemsex and did more to deter me than any government sponsored advertisement ever could.
Review by Terry Eastham
With more and more gay men falling into addiction, and more incidents of chemsex-related crime, discussing this issue has never been more urgent – and it isn’t going away. David Stuart of 56 Dean Street, a health clinic in Soho, still sees approximately 3000+ drug cases per month, and that number is not decreasing. He says “Gay communities around the world are in the throes of a profound cultural shift; some of this is manifesting as poor sexual wellbeing, and chemsex. We need kind hearts and cool heads to address it and I believe theatre, at its very best, can help us to do this. I’m so pleased that Peter Darney has had the courage and compassion to address these issues through the prism of true stories; this is verbatim theatre. This is community.”
5 Guys Chillin’
Writer/Director Peter Darney
Lighting Designer Sherry Coenen
Producer King’s Head Theatre and Em-Lou Productions
Performance Dates 16th May 2017 –3rd June 2017
Running Time 80 mins
Venue King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, London, N1 1QN