THEATRE / Chintz in the armour

Jeffrey Greenwich, London
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"I wanted to capture the insanity of the Aids era," Paul Rudnick explains in the programme to the English premiere of his New York hit, Jeffrey, "and the valour of those who manage to find love and double-ply cashmere between, and even during, hospital visits, marches and eulogies." The campy defiant bathos of that "double-ply cashmere" reference is very typical of the comic technique deployed in the play. Asked what he prayed for during the silence at a memorial service, an interior designer (Neil Daglish) replies: "No more disease. No more prejudice. No more chintz." Asked to describe what evil is, the horny Catholic priest (Michael Roberts) who tries to get off with the hero in church, answers, "Phantom. Starlight Express. Miss Saigon... Over-miking, smoke machines," a case, we can take it, of the devil not having the best tunes.

All these automatic retorts which kiddingly confuse questions of style and morality are meant to show us a community whose spirit refuses to be defeated in the face of illness and death. But in the absence of a plot which dramatises with any depth the difficulties of gay life in New York, the jests begin to sound gratingly brittle. Directed by Tim Luscombe, the play bowls along, taking in such stops as a hoedown for Aids at the Waldorf, Lower Manhattan Gentlemen's Masturbation Society, a cruisy memorial service and a Sexual Compulsives Anonymous meeting.

Against the cartoony two-dimensionality of such episodes, the play needs a connecting story of real substance. Instead, Rudnick offers you his cardboard-thin treatment of the plight of Jeffrey (Christopher Villiers), the "pushover of Lower Manhattan" who gives up sex completely because of Aids. He's then pursued by Steve (Simon Burke), a hot hunk who admits that he has HIV. What follows is how Jeffrey's fearful, life-denying abstinence is overcome and transformed into responsibility-taking love. This is achieved with a little help from a chorus-boy friend of his who died of Aids but returns, his Cats costume now an other-worldly white ("Jeffrey, I'm dead; you're not", "I know that", "Then prove it") and from Mother Theresa. Mother Theresa? Don't even ask.

Simon Burke has a nice line in drawled, scathing irony but quite why he is so fixated by shallow, pretty-boy Jeffrey is left enfeeblingly unclear. Later, Steve acquires a lover, Sean, though we aren't told whether he too is HIV positive or not. Sean's ready willingness to sleep with Steve could have set up an interesting conflict of loyalties when Jeffrey has his second thoughts on the matter. But this is not a play for such intricate ethical struggles and Sean has conveniently upped and left by the time Jeffrey is ready to say: "I'm a gay man. I live in New York. I'm not an innocent bystander any more." And though it might not have been as good for the box office, the whole predicament of the central pair would have been more interesting dramatically if they had been just ordinary-looking guys rather than the stuff of porn fantasies.

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