Trafalgar Studios, London

Theatre review: The Pride - Put two tickets in the post for Mr Putin

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A single cast tells two separate stories of gay lovers in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, set in 1958 and 2008 (when it was first staged), exploring the characters’ own, and society’s, changing attitudes towards sexuality, identity and honesty. At this timely revival directed by Jamie Lloyd for the Trafalgar Transformed season, the actors hold placards reading “To Russia, With Love” for the curtain call.

It’s hard to believe it was a debut play; the writing is witty and zesty, the pace taut and the structure neat. Campbell also plumbs emotional depths, in the charged currents of what cannot be said that swirl beneath polite conversation in 1958, and in the brashly modern over-share of 2008.

Hayley Atwell plays both a Fifties wife and a Noughties best mate, and is aggressively charming and wholly believable in both. Harry Hadden-Paton is Philip, who in the Fifties scenes has deeply repressed homosexual feelings, set alight by Al Weaver’s Oliver. Their love affair makes the latter realise he can feel “a pride” in being gay. Philip can’t share this epiphany, and there is  an astonishing, mercurial scene of confrontation at the play’s centre, that turns distressingly brutal.  

As relationships in 1958 slowly unravel, scenes are intercut with those from 50 years on, in which we see that all the liberation in the world still doesn’t make relationships easy. Despite being committed to the modern Philip, an angst-ridden young Oliver seems unable to put an end to “the slut stuff”; his cheating causes Philip to walk.

There’s starry support from Mathew Horne in largely comic roles, including a camply pouting Nazi-costumed call boy and a lads’ mag editor on a crusade to show straight readers that “it’s cool to be gay or whatever”. His comic timing is brilliant, buffing the polish of Campbell’s satirically scathing script.

Moments when the past haunts the present, the old Philip appearing as an apparition through an enormous two-way mirror, don’t always work. Although presumably meant to show how past prejudices still weigh heavily, it actually muddles the contemporary relationship. Nonetheless, this scorching revival proves The Pride is well worth revisiting.

Home (The Shed, NT, London ***), created by Nadia Fall, is verbatim theatre, devised around transcripts of interviews with young people in a hostel in east London. Unsurprisingly, it presses hot buttons, from domestic violence to illegal immigration, drug abuse to gang culture, the Olympic legacy to STDs. Perhaps because that doesn’t sound like a laugh, the show also has a lively musical element.

This is fine when it seems to come naturally, as when a young man sings Beyoncé’s “Halo” for the interviewer (invisible but ever present, and addressed as if in the audience). One cast member, Grace Savage, only ever beatboxes – it’s her way of communicating – and she is incredibly talented; so fears that this is thrown in as a lame attempt to be “down with the kids” instantly evaporate.

When characters break into song it can jar: “I’m longing for my keys” turns the issue of permanent housing shortages into a hand-on-heart, reach-for-the-high-note moment. The tough-as-boots hostel manager, Sharon (excellent Ashley McGuire), wearily sums up the challenges these kids face – deemed “scroungers” and with nowhere to go, thanks to government cuts – then she breaks into a song about sunrise and flowers, as if it’s all got a bit too political.

Home could have been leadenly worthy, but it has a springiness, and is funny without being patronising. The hard-working cast of nine, all playing several roles, are energetic and verbally dexterous, pulling off the street lingo too – braps and bruvs, innits and tings. Exceptional is the endearingly exuberant Michaela Coel, playing a teenager who, while estranged from her mum and contracting chlamydia three times, has an irrepressible love for life.

The hostel system isn’t romanticised; some praise the community, others fear their neighbours. Everyone longs for their own home; this is only a halfway house. Home is necessarily made up of fragmentary stories, and it’s fragmentary in form. Perhaps that’s the only way to capture the range and transitory nature of these interconnected experiences: it doesn’t completely cohere, but then nor do such communities.

‘The Pride’ (trafalgar-studios.co.uk, to 9 Nov; ‘Home’ (nationaltheatre.org.uk) to 7 Sept

Critic's Choice

Part mystery, part comedy, part critique of international relations, Lucy Kirkwood’s impressive Chimerica, now at the Harold Pinter, London, is a thrilling ride (until 19 Oct). At the National Theatre, Adrian Lester in the title role of Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago are in perfect balance (to 5 Sept). Or see the live cinema relay (26 Sept).

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