Relationships used to be so easy. Two people met, fell in love, moved in together and remained faithful to each other through the rest of their lives. Of course, this is utter balderdash and in reality, relationships can be quite complicated with monogamous, open, polyamorous to name but three. The important thing in maintaining a relationship is, so we are told, to be honest and communicate with each other. But, is it really? The subject is explored in Kevin Elyot’s play Coming Clean, a 35th-year-anniversary revival, as the headline of the Queer Season at the King’s Head Theatre.
It’s 1982 and in a flat in Kentish Town two friends are comparing their previous night. William (Elliot Hadley) is recounting his exploits after he left best friend Tony (Lee Knight) to go off with some ‘trade’ he had picked up in the disco they were both at. Although they are really close friends, there is some jealousy in William’s attitude to Tony. Not only is Tony in a committed relationship – coming up on 5 years now – with writer and lecturer Greg (Jason Nwoga), but the relationship is ‘open’. For those not in the know, this means, that Tony and Greg remain committed to each other but are able to have one-off hook ups with other guys whenever the fancy takes them. William seems happy to hang around all day chatting but Tony has things to do. His partner is away at a conference and Tony is waiting for his new cleaner to arrive and work his magic on the rather unkempt flat. When the doorbell rings, Tony goes to let the cleaner in and William has his breath taken away as the handsome Robert (Tom Lambert) arrives and lights up the room. Robert is a young ‘resting’ actor who does the cleaning, and a bit of cooking, on the side to make ends meet between acting jobs. The introduction of Robert into Tony and Greg’s house is welcome – since the place will finally be cleaned up – but ultimately will have a profound effect on the three of them.
Coming Clean is definitely a play of its time. For some of the younger audience members, the idea of going to a disco in the hope of meeting someone must seem totally alien in this day of social media and dating apps. The interesting thing is that although set in the 1980s parts of the story are still prevalent today. Meeting people and going off with them is still as fraught with danger as it was 35 years ago and relationships are just as complex. So, on the whole, I liked the story itself. My problem is – and I will probably find myself on the Gay Mafia hit-list – I don’t think Kevin Elyot was that great a writer of the spoken word. OK, I’ve only seen two of his plays, and neither was ‘My Night With Reg’ but I find his dialogue sometimes a bit heavy and taking a long time to not go very far. The strange thing was that the scenes between William and Tony were really well written and I could have listened to the two of them bantering on together for ages.
So having said that. This production is extremely good. It starts with Amanda Mascarenhas’ set which is meticulous in design and really evokes a home of the early 1980’s. This attention to detail extends to the costumes and I have to say Robert’s Walkman cassette player – an early iPod for the youngsters out there – was great to see. Coupled with the scenery, was the impressive sound which came from the right parts of the stage – the telephone rings and we all look towards the sound, the record player goes on and the sound comes from the speakers – many congratulations to Sound Designer Yvonne Gilbert there. These two elements all added to the realism and Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher made full use of them bringing the production together beautifully. In fact, as far as the direction goes, there were some amazingly superb touches that really impressed me. For example, without giving anything away, the shift from Scene 5 to Scene 6 brought a gasp of astonishment from me for two very different reasons – one of which was down to the directing.
Moving to the actors and the four strong cast were really good in their roles. On the journey home, my companion and I had a long discussion about the characters and the way they were portrayed. Of the four, my favourite was William and full credit to Elliot Hadley for making him outrageously camp, vulnerable and surprisingly strong at the same time. Lee Knight’s Tony was a much more complex character and, reading the playtext this morning, I’ve come up with all sorts of theories about his personality and the reasons behind his actions. Lee should be congratulated for making Tony such an enigma. Another enigma was Robert. Initially, Tom Lambert seemed to make Robert a young, shy person but, as the play went on, he seemed to change and grow and I was left wondering about him. I think part of the problem is that, over the roughly seven months of the play, Robert’s life changes in many ways and although the audience knows what has happened, they don’t know why, which I found slightly frustrating. However, Tom plays the part extremely well and with his looks and winning smile, is absolutely perfect for Robert. Finally, of the four, I found that I never really warmed to Greg. Jason Nwoga played the part well but I just didn’t like Greg from the start and had real trouble understanding how he and Tony stayed together which leads me back to the start of this paragraph.
All in all, I did enjoy Coming Clean – and really appreciate the multiple meaning of the title. While I had some issues with some the writing, the story is fascinating and the production is first-rate. As with many gay plays, the themes explored are easily translatable and, in this case, relevant to relationships across the orientation spectrum.
Review by Terry Eastham
The play is set in a flat in Kentish Town, north London, in 1982. Struggling writer Tony and his partner of five years, Greg, seem to have the perfect relationship. Committed and in love, they are both open to one-night stands as long as they don’t impinge on the relationship. But Tony is starting to yearn for something deeper, something more like monogamy. When he finds out that Greg has been having a full-blown affair with their cleaner, Robert, their differing attitudes towards love and commitment become clear.
Cast: Lee Knight as Tony, Elliot Hadley as William/Jurgen, Tom Lambert as Robert and Jason Nwoga as Greg.
25 July – 26 August 2017
King’s Head Theatre
115 Upper Street
London N1 1QN