The Boys in the Band (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

The Boys in the Band (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, November 12th)

An iconic gay drama regarded as a milestone when first produced in 1968 is given a welcome revival by a faultless cast in a brief post-London national tour.

Mart Crowley’s seminal The Boys in the Band may not raise as much as an eyebrow today (especially in front of Brighton audiences) but at the time its honest portrayal of the largely closeted lives of urban gay men shocked and was even seen by some as one of the sparks that fired the Stonewall riots a year later.

All these years later in what are surely more liberated times the play could and should seem like a museum piece yet director Adam Penford and the strong cast remind us, if not of any particular contemporary relevance, of its importance and watchability.

The setting of a birthday party for an old friend becomes the focal point for secrets to be cruelly revealed, characters to be stung and bleakness and bitterness to triumph. However devastating, the play never loses hope even where it struggles to see beyond the status quo.

There isn’t even a suggestion of a weak link among the cast, and it may well be that the very fine performances carry the play further than it may otherwise go. It is certainly true that many of the characters slip into the background when not centre stage, so it is very much to the credit of the actors that the presence of all is keenly felt at every moment.

Ian Hallard is a triumph as the initially charming but inherently miserable Michael, the struggling writer, whose descent from club sodas to straight whiskies during the course of the play leads to a vicious party game in which everyone is challenged to ring the person they love the most. However unpleasant the character becomes, Hallard manages to keep him likeable and the wave of emotion that sweeps over him at the end of the evening is powerfully heart-breaking.

Mark Gatiss as Harold, for whom the party is being held, doesn’t arrive until the closing seconds of the first half and when he does he is magnetic to watch. It is in many ways the lightest role, yet Gatiss prowls around the stage like a wolf waiting to devour its prey, witty and waspish yet with a hidden eccentric monstrosity on the verge of being released.

Daniel Boys is tremendous as Donald, a loyal anchor for Michael, who you sense will overcome his own sadness and anxiety to keep his friend on the right side of sanity, while John Hopkins plays the is-he-or-isn’t-he Alan, the surprise caller shocked by what he discovers about the others and maybe even himself, with supreme confidence and depth.

There’s a great comic turn from James Holmes as the outrageous and effeminate Emory, whose flamboyance is punctured but not trounced by the events at the party, while Greg Lockett gives an excellent  performance as Bernard, the African-American who manages to rise above layers of intolerance.

Ben Mansfield and Nathan Nolan are superb as Larry and Hank, one with no qualms about working his way through multiple sex partners, the other previously married to a woman who seeks a purely monogamous relationship.

Jack Derges makes the very best of his eye candy Cowboy role, one of Harold’s birthday presents and getting many of the laughs through his naivety and ignorance.

Rebecca Brower’s Manhattan apartment set is terrific, decorated with photos of silver screen legends, while Penford’s direction is the beating heart of the production, ensuring every character and situation is true to life and that the drama never tips over into mere camp.

Ultimately the production makes a good case for reassessing the play’s strengths, mines all of its humour and perhaps even begs the question nearly 50 years later why it is that the drama and issues raised aren’t seen more often in contemporary theatre.

David Guest