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Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope Written and performed by Mark Farrelly

Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope - Mark Farrelly
Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope – Mark Farrelly

Since Quentin Crisp’s life was nothing if not a one-man show, he lends himself to that theatrical format almost as generously in death as he did in life. The bold irony of that existence was that while seeming to embody a thoroughly stagey and flamboyant version of himself, the life was that of a seeker after plain truth. His aim: to be no more and no less than he was intended to be, and to hell with his dull and fearful detractors.

Because this approach was fraught with some very clear and present dangers in a viciously homophobic and hypocritical England, his stand required not just the brazenness of a committed extrovert but also the stoicism of a serious and emotional ideologue.

As Farrelly’s suitably brave depiction of him demonstrates, this goal of his, while seeming outrageous in that England, could lay claim to some timeless advocates. He may not actually cite Polonius’s advice about being true to oneself and hence avoiding falsehood to others, but the spirit of those words runs through his piece like the proverbial lettering in the stick of rock. In fact, that item of confectionary could be analogous to Crisp’s life; some sweetness, some stickiness, harder than you thought and… determinedly phallic.

If the life was a game of two halves, then so is Farrelly’s treatment of it. As the first “half” had run to three score years and ten, it was inevitably longer than the second. We find him uncharacteristically morose and defeated in his Chelsea flat. Life, he concludes, has passed him by, and who are we to contradict him. No point anyway, since he is already on the case and about to come up with one of his classic self-ripostes: “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.

As Farrelly has said elsewhere, he wrote the piece not only because he admired Crisp but also because he – only one word for it – identified with him. Like his subject, he had decided that life looked as though it had come to an end, pushed to that point partly through romantic rejection, but partly also through the horrors of others enacting the ultimate self-dismissal, suicide.

Quentin was ‘discovered’ late in life,” he observes, “and embraced by much of the known world. So I created the piece to encourage the audience, but principally myself, to remember that tides do turn, life changes, and new energies enter it.

And how. The last twenty years of the life, and the last half-hour of the show, take us to New York to witness one of the ultimate refutations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum about American lives having no second acts. He and the Apple devour each other with mutual gusto and curiosity. There is a crucial, highly welcome absentee at this feast, and that is the awkward English figure with the awkward English title – Judgmentalism.

The States, or at least this bit of it, has made him a star by treating him like one and largely replacing vilification with respect. As never before, he is allowed, even encouraged to spread his ornate and vulnerable wings. Both Crisp and his present re-creator Farrelly, are energised by the tolerance. Hence the play’s home straights, or homo straights as he might have said, are rich in the aphorisms of mature Crispness, for example the advice to stop aspiring to the levels of others and start dragging them down to your own – it’s so much cheaper.

He also finds time to praise the actor John Hurt for his portrayal of him in the 1975 biographical film based on Crisp’s book The Naked Civil Servant. “I had spent seventy years trying to play the part of Quentin Crisp, and failed. Hurt succeeded. And the film was so much shorter than the real thing.”

That real thing went on until he had turned ninety. He was by then several worlds away from his comically inappropriate beginnings in the staid, suburban England before the first War. Even his given name had seriously misjudged him: Denis Charles Pratt.

Having tackled the life of the vastly more self-destructive English author Patrick Hamilton, Farrelly has form in dealing with outspoken and heroic misfits. Luckily for Crisp, and for the rest of us, his portrayal stops short of preaching the need for sexual tolerance. Crisp needed no such advocacy; in fact, the lack of it was one of his energising forces. His position, and Farrelly’s honouring of it, makes the hour and a quarter show a proper celebration of a truly witty outsider who knew, more than was comfortable, what went on inside. He was never as polemic as a Peter Tatchell – that was not his game – but as a standard-bearer for truthfulness in the minefield of sexual politics – he may well be one of those unlikely giants on whose shoulders later campaigners are standing.

4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

From a conventional Surrey upbringing to global notoriety via The Naked Civil Servant, Quentin Crisp was an extraordinary raconteur and wit.

Openly gay as early as the 1930s, Quentin spent decades being beaten up on London’s streets simply for his refusal to be anything less than himself. His steadfast courage, and the powerful philosophy that evolved from those experiences continue to inspire to the present day.

This much-acclaimed solo play, following a UK tour and off-West End season at the St. James Theatre, shows Quentin both in his beloved Chelsea flat as the 1970s dawned, and in his final years in his adopted New York, with the new millennium beckoning.

Naked Hope is a gloriously uplifting salute to a true one-off, and a timely reminder of the urgent necessity to live every day as your true self.

Playwright | Mark Farrelly
Director | Linda Marlowe
Running time: 70 minutes with no interval

Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH
www.brockleyjack.co.uk

Author

  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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