Theatre

BURNING BLUE Haymarket, London00

Musing on possible locations for his polymorphously perverse farce, What the Butler Saw, Joe Orton pounced appreciatively on the suggestion that it be staged at the Haymarket, declaring that it would be a "sort of joke even" to put on such a subversive piece at the "Theatre of Perfection". Well, a lot has happened to the Haymarket since 1967 (the plays of Ben Elton have appeared there, God help us). But there's still a sufficiently Establishment feel to the place to make it quite a piquantly transgressive venue for the West End transfer of Burning Blue, D M Greer's powerful play about a gay witchhunt in the American navy repleat with full frontal male nudity and the spectacle of pilots kissing. Not so much a passing- out parade as a coming-out parade.

When I reviewed the piece at the King's Head, I ended a largely positive notice with the comment: "It's intriguing that, in justly championing the rights of gay people to serve in the US military, the play never takes leave to question the value of being in the US military at all." Seeing for a second time John T Hickok's superbly acted production (improved now with the recasting of Tim Woodward as a more persuasively obsessive and class-grudge-fuelled special investigator), I realise that, in fact, scepticism about the value of serving in this institution pervades the play.

Greer constructs his often funny, sharply observed melodrama so as to place maximum emphasis on the fact that the military alienates men from their emotions. The point is underlined almost too insistently by the lieutenant nicknamed "Boner" (the brilliant Martin McDougall), the son of Iowa pigfarmers. Being working class (unlike his comrades who hail from emotionally repressed military dynasties), heterosexual Boner, we gather, is in touch with his feelings to the point of publicly and permanently groping them. Able to cry at funerals and demonstrate laid-back tolerance of the diverse ways in which people like to get laid, he's presented as the exception that proves the uptight rule.

Indeed, this is not a special interest play about gay rights at all (there's no discussion, for instance, of when, where and how sexuality could be openly recognised in the forces). It's a piece, rather, about how the military distorts the affective life of all its personnel, relying on butch male bonding, while refusing to recognise just where that ethos can lead. The wife of even the straightest of the men here is largely peripheral. When his best buddy turns out to be gay, what a heterosexual pilot may most feel, we see, is not revulsion but the disorienting grief of exclusion.

Antony Edridge's nobly suffering Dano has been helping his straight friend Will (Ian Fitzgibbon) cheat with his eye-tests, which leads you to suspect that Dano's lover Matt (Robert Bogue) will die as a result of Will's poor vision, thus creating the tragic twist. In fact, he is killed because "he took his private life into the aircraft", flying after a turbulent showdown with his ghastly wife.

This play offers no comfort to those who argue that you can compartmentalise your life to suit the requirements of the services. The line that got a round of delighted applause on the Press night was Boner's response to being asked what he thought he was doing in a gay disco: "Come on, Dano, the music's better and the people are more fun." It's to be hoped that Burning Blue finds an audience beyond this readily assenting constituency.

n Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1. Booking: 0171-930 8800

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