THEATRE / Boy trouble: Paul Taylor on Jonathan Harvey's Babies at the Royal Court, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Sonia, the psychic neighbour in Jonathan Harvey's Babies, puts homosexuality down to reincarnation. She reckons that 'once upon a time, gay men were women in a past life', a theory which - though Elizabeth Estensen's amusing Sonia hasn't the wit to realise it - could equally be used to account for heterosexual men as former lesbians. She airs her half-baked beliefs to Joe (Ian Dunn), a young Liverpudlian teacher and fellow guest at the 14th birthday party of Tammy (Melissa Wilson), one of his pupils at a big south-east London comprehensive.

Although he keeps it secret at school, Joe is, in fact, gay, with a live-in electrician lover who's a drug abuser. One way or another, however, the cat will have to jump out of the bag tonight, for there are two people determined to force an entry into his jeans: Tammy's mother Viv (excellent Lorraine Ashbourne), a raunchy recent widow whose repertoire of lewd wisecracks is as long as her Lycra mini-dress is short; and Tammy's gay uncle (Karl Draper), a bit- and-a-half of amiable rough in leather.

Like Harvey's last play, Beautiful Thing (a runaway hit now about to transfer to the Duke of York), Babies displays a brilliant ear for fast, funny, authentic-sounding dialogue ('You were so far back in the closet you were in fucking Narnia', Joe reminds his boyfriend at one point). But it's also like Beautiful Thing in the sense it uses charm and an evasive way with plot to dodge most of the issues it raises. Representatives of homophobia are once again artificially kept to a cheering minimum.

Harvey, for example, sets up the potential sibling rivalry over Joe only to allow it no real psychological pay- off. Likewise, we're made to think at the start that the druggie boyfriend may go out and wreck their relationship with a retaliatory acid bender because of Joe's decision to go to a straight party. But the next time we see the boyfriend, near the end, it turns out he's done nothing more dangerous with his evening than watch a double episode of Taggart. This makes the final kisses and cuddles feel like a cop- out rather than a resolution.

With a rousing conga line- up, roller-skating scene- shifters and a specially built catwalk for invasions over the stalls, Polly Teale's production achieves a fine improvisatory fluidity and a (rather coercive) party atmosphere. The nadir of the show came when the celebrations were graced by the presence of a middle-aged North London drag act pretending to be the Queen. Requiring everyone to stand up for the national anthem, he then launched into a rendition of 'I Am What I Am' and cracked some blue gay jokes. An odd entertainment to book for a neice's 14th birthday, you reflected, as you tried to look anywhere but at the stage. The compulsory merriment he brought to the party was, by and large, paralleled for me, I'm afraid to say, by what the play as a whole brings to the Royal Court. The camp feel- good factor is so enforced on you, you may wind up just feeling irritable.

Box-office: 071-730 1745