THEATRE: The Gay Detective; Tricycle, London

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Both in life and in art, you can't move for mobile phones lately. With shrill abandon, they're going off in the House of Commons, at West End first nights and in Gillian Shephard's clutchbag (who says they're all bad?). As dramatic devices, mobiles have hugely increased the opportunities in plays for engineering a comic clash between the nature of the caller and the current circumstances of the person called. In Gerard Stembridge's The Gay Detective, for instance, a police superintendent phones one of his officers who happens, at the time and throughout the resulting conversation, to be giving vigorous hand relief to another man in a homosexual cruising area.

This latter understandably tries to keep his mounting ecstasy inaudible, but he needn't bother. The super knows of the officer's preferences, has confronted him about them, and is now diligently exploiting the situation. The play is set in Ireland just before the decriminalising of homosexuality - so there's little chance of the young officer Pat (Peter Hanly) being "accepted" like Weald, the gay Yorkshire police sergeant in Reginald Hill's detective novels whose pug-ugliness preoccupies his colleagues rather more than his inclinations.

Stembridge's play shows how an insecure Pat is lured on by the dangled carrot of promotion to infiltrate various milieux (all-night saunas, kinky sex weekends run by socially prominent closet cases etc) to help in the investigation of the murder of a homosexual backbench MP. Pat's full realisation of how he's being used and corrupted by Mark Lambert's crusty old bigot of a superintendent only comes when he has proof that the three distinguished citizens, whom he knows killed the MP, are also responsible for the murder of a rent boy. The superintendent's reaction (that the life of a homosexual prostitute is not worth rocking the social boat for) finally convinces Pat that he should leave the force and reunite with his impossibly cute, HIV-positive boyfriend Ginger (Eddie Tighe) who now needs nursing.

Both the play and Stembridge's production are drenched in blackly comic charm and there are good jokes, some of which will have made more sense to an Irish audience. Yet the whole thing struck me as morally pretty dubious - the liberalism of the piece compromised by a kind of lingering, possibly unconscious co-operation with prejudice. For example, the superintendent's declaration that "Queers are either sad or bad" is not best countered by a play that could easily give the impression that he is wrong only in the sense that gay men are overwhelmingly sad, bad, or ridiculous - a vicious masonry of perverts, or a bunch of cockteasers who enjoy humiliating old men in saunas, or people who go into a relationship without telling their new lovers that they are HIV-positive.

It would have been strategically cannier of Stembridge to include a few more of the millions of gay men who do not fall into any of these categories. The play, which is about various kinds of betrayal, offers an amusing demonstration of how badly the law needed liberalising but, in the selection and treatment of specific individuals, it seems to me often to betray its own finer instinctsn

To 30 Nov. Booking: 0171-328 1000

Paul Taylor