THEATRE : Navy blues

Burning Blue King's Head, London N1
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The quality of official thinking on the subject of gays and the military has never been exactly high. As Jeremy Bentham once noted, tampering with a fellow sailor's virtue was considered a more heinous crime in law than selling the secrets of the fleet. Only last week, it was reported that Britain will send home any of the Australian service people over here on attachment if they are discovered to be of homosexual inclination. It makes you wonder how, if gay people are such a threat to order in the Forces, we managed to come through the Second World War in one piece.

Though it's set in 1989, DMW Greer's autobiographically based Burning Blue - a new play about a gay witch-hunt in the US Navy - is not, alas, dealing with dated material. Focusing on four young naval lieutenants, it's a piece that has clearly been written from a deep familiarity with joshing locker-room horseplay (both parodying and dicing with the homo- erotic) and with the macho buddy ethos to which these men subscribe. When two of them (one married, one engaged) are spotted dancing together at a gay disco in Hong Kong, special agents embark on an inquiry, the play progressing as a mix of interrogations and flashbacks.

It can't be denied that Burning Blue has a number of flaws. Not helped by an over-the-top performance from David Pullan, the homophobia of the chief investigator reaches levels of hysteria that come across as hokey- comic rather than appalling. There are bits of dialogue ("you know you are the man who really taught me how to see the sky") that would be happier in a Mills & Boon novel. The female parts are undernourished and when you hear the lush romanticism of the demo tape left by the lieutenant who gets killed, you wonder how this amateur tune-smith managed to requisition the services of a full symphony orchestra. It also rigs your sympathies that the actors who play the lovers (Robert Dirkse and Antony Edridge) are both drop-dead handsome so that their pairing off seems logical, as much the result of a joint membership of the aristocracy of good looks as of a shared sexuality.

The central performances in John T Hickok's charged production are utterly persuasive, though, and the play, too, carries great conviction as it shows the sordid techniques of the investigation: isolating and harassing the suspect; threatening to expose him to his (often military) father. It's not a play that reaches comforting conclusions, for it becomes apparent at the end that the main reason the heterosexual lieutenant (Ian Fitzgibbon) has repudiated his suspected best pal was less through anti-gay prejudice than a feeling of rejection. That shows how thin and confused the line can be between homo-social comradeship and homosexual desire. 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.

Paul Taylor