THEATRE / Kissing in the back row: Paul Taylor on Stupid Cupid, Phil Wilmott's foray into Hollywood 'romance', at the Battersea Arts Centre

The road back to the 1950s seems to be congested with gay theatre practitioners just at present. First there was Night After Night, Neil Bartlett's thought-provoking look at the gay subtext of 1950s musical theatre and at the ambiguous position of the homosexual chorus boy.

Now, hot on the heels of that piece, comes Gay Sweatshop's Stupid Cupid, a musical by Phil Wilmott, which - archly advertising itself as 'a sin- steeped story of yesterday's bent generation' - looks at homosexual history from the perspective of 1950s cinema.

Interspersed with tongue-in- cheek pastiche period numbers, the show leaps back and forth between the world of the Peckham Picture Palace and the studios of Tinsel Town, contrasting the Technicolour Hollywood promise of freedom, glamour and heterosexual romance with both the grey and constrained milieu of gay English cinema-goers and the somewhat differently cramped experience of the homosexual actors who gave the planet its heart-throb images as masculine and feminine ideals.

The result is often quite funny, in a rough and ready sort of fashion, and there are spiritedly outrageous themes involving a poisonous gossip columnist who blackmails the studio into forcing its biggest stars, a gay Hudson-like hunk (Nicholas Rylance) and a Sapphic Monroe-clone (Karen Parker), into getting engaged on her TV chat-show. The hunk, being as thick as he is narcissistic and promiscuous, thinks the script he's given for this event is just another screenplay and is shown conceitedly rehearsing his lines (about how it's time 'to throw that little black book away') while making maximum use of the new young studio masseur.

But where Night After Night launched into the dream world of the Fifties musical from a precisely evoked Shaftesbury Avenue theatre milieu, replete with authentically re-created gay front of house staff, Stupid Cupid keeps messing up its contrast by being pretty slap- happy with the facts on both sides of the reality-fantasy divide.

The English strand, in which a Buttons-like cinema usher (Andy Spiegel) is first swept off his feet and then brought down to earth by a shy, upper-crust RAF officer, makes some sledgehammer points about class structure but only by first making you reel with incredulity at the crude social caricatures it assembles.

Nothing earns your trust, so that by the time the usher's oppressed mother confesses to her son that, during their cinema visits when he was a boy, she used to nip up to have nookie with the female projectionist, you find yourself wondering whether there really were female projectionists in the period.

The contrasts are no sharper in the States, where the Monroe-clone improbably decides to come out, rather than marry, on the columnist's show. 'I'm swapping dicks for chicks,' she sings in a raunchily revised version of her hit song 'Femininity', a ditty already unimaginably outspoken in its original form. Ironic that a show whose message is not to hide yourself away in the dark of a dream house should itself be predominantly escapist.

'Stupid Cupid' continues until 16 January at the Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11 (Box office: 071-223 6557)

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