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Desperate Times at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

According to Ronald Reagan, speaking at a news conference in August 1986, “the top nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’.” Just as well, then, that a sum total of zero politicians feature in Desperate Times – perish the thought, but it might have to be called Extremely Desperate Times Indeed if they were. Anyway, it’s almost immediately evident that a little more suspension of disbelief than usual is required, with the actors playing a young man’s parents (Sean Renwick and Arianna Gallenzi) being more or less in the same age bracket as the central character (Oliver Gupta) himself.

Desperate TimesOnly Jonny (also Renwick) is a named character in a narrative which portrays, at least initially, people in the countryside as living, proverbially speaking, in a different century to people in the city – when the son comes out to his parents, his mother simply refuses to accept it: you’d have thought having a gay son would mean being stripped of her citizenship or something. Interestingly, at least for me, no reference is made to religious beliefs, and while it is repeatedly made clear she thinks her son has brought “shame” on her and the rest of the family, her outmoded LGBT+ views may not be the only reason for her sheer disgust, because of what she sees as rebellion and disobedience from her son, albeit a grown-up, still living under her roof.

Enter a benevolent person named only as Man (Valentin Burwell), who quickly befriends the son almost by default in the local pub. Jonny and another acquaintance indulge in toxic masculinity – the son, unimpressed and uncomfortable, is soon enough whisked away to the bright lights of ‘the city’, where things are, as this production would have it, altogether better. Nuances creep in eventually which pull away from the starting points of rural equals backdated and urban equals progressive, but only to a certain extent. As for the son’s mother, it becomes less convincing over time that she would be any less uncompromisingly difficult if the son had brought home a lady instead of a man.

The play’s critical incident allows the production to show the National Health Service in a positive light, with a nurse (Adam Selvan) seemingly having as much time as is needed for each patient – given the show’s title, I wonder if a little diversion into the pressures and challenges the health service is facing would have been useful. The central character’s journey involves treading a well-worn path of peers and parents being ignorant and/or antagonistic about his sexual identity – I use the term ‘peers’ loosely, as he doesn’t consider the likes of Jonny to be his ‘friends’.

It is, of course, a positive thing that the son finds happiness and contentment when he was once rather miserable. The play’s slightly abrupt and very open-ended conclusion leaves the audience pondering what happens next, although it’s clear that city life comes with its own dangers and challenges. Overall, it’s easy to get emotionally invested in a narrative that triggers a range of responses from anger to relief to frustration to laughter. Some costume changes, meanwhile, are remarkably quick. Moderately paced, this engaging play provides a useful reminder that while we may be more tolerant and accepting as a society than we once were, there is still much work to do.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

A story of love, isolation, and self-discovery, Desperate Times shines a light on the struggles of growing up queer in rural England.

Creative Team
Writer Adam Laboda He/They
Producer Trudi Licence She/Her
Stage Crew Adam Selvan He/Him
Director Adam Laboda He/They
Technical Operator Alex Farrow He/Him

SON Oliver Gupta He/Him
DAD, JONN Sean Renwick He/Him
MAN Valentin Burwell He/Him
MUM, WOMAN, FRIEND Arianna Gallenzi
LAD, NURSE Adam Selvan He/Him

May 9th – 13th 2023 |7:30pm Lion and Unicorn Theatre, Kentish Town, London, NW5 Running time: 110 minuets Tickets: Regular £14, Concessions £12 AGES 14+

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