Saturday 16 September 2023

Stage: I'll drink to that

Deeper and Deeper
written and directed by Tim McArthur
with Scott Afton, Stewart Briggs, Dickon Farmar, Robert Hook, Hari Kanabar
produced by Above the Stag
lighting Vittorio Verta
costumes Michelle Taylor Knight
Union Theatre, Southwark • 13-17.Sep.23

Kanabar and Hook
There are some provocative ideas gurgling within this drama, which explores the lives of five men whose lives are intertwined over nearly two decades. Much of the interaction features barbed humour, but it's not quite appropriate to call this a comedy, as the jokes reveal limited perspectives and awkward attitudes. The dialog may elicit laughter here and there, but much of this is because it's so easy to see how these guys are struggling to connect on a deeper level.

It opens with a first meeting in a Camden flat in 1997, as Andrew (Farmar) is looking to rent a room with a group of younger guys. He's welcomed by Simon (Afton), an eager and very naive kid only recently arrived in London from Cornwall. Then the sexy Joe (Hook) turns up, flirting shamelessly and then some. The fourth tenant is the cheerful owner Paul (Briggs). And over the years, these four get very drunk together and expose their thoughts and feelings about a range of issues relating to gay life in Britain. A new boyfriend arrives with French twink Louis (Kanabar), relationships come and go, and revelations continually shake their trust in each other.

Afton and Farmar
On a nicely simplified set with black furniture, white props and a scene-setting video wall, the play's first half progresses in sequence, jumping ahead through five years. Then after the interval the narrative fractures, flashing back to reveal connections made earlier than expected, secret ongoing relationships, a surprising sudden death and various years-later encounters. Through all of this, there's a lot of banter about  the usual gay topics like sex, dating and clubbing. And there's continual spicy interaction, although it's more barbed than playful. Indeed, their insults have a brittle, queeny sting to them, usually fuelled by alcohol.

Performances are strong on the whole. Aside from one miscast role, the actors find clever ways to mix sexual posturing with bristly sarcasm while continually revealing underlying emotions. Hook and Kanabar have the most engaging presence on-stage, creating a strikingly realistic bond together. Their roles are more naturalistic than the others, so they're easier to identify with. Hook is remarkably good at holding audience sympathy even as Joe is vilified for his promiscuity and deception. All of them nicely convey the way these men change over the decades.

Briggs with Hook & Kanabar
Alongside pop cultural references and Madonna music from 1995 to 2013, the play is packed with witty observations, sassy opinions, screaming rows and darkly emotional introspection. And while it feels rather fragmented, it adds up to an involving depiction of a relationship over time within the gay subculture, including the way it ripples out to encompass other people. As these five men fall in and out of love and then find lingering embers of affection, a profound honesty emerges that's ultimately moving.

For details, ABOVE THE STAG >

photos by PGBStudios • 13.Sep.23

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