THEATRE / Time to pay the rent: Paul Taylor on Playing by the Rules, a drama about rent boys, at the Drill Hall

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The Independent Culture
The programme for Rod Dungate's Playing by the Rules reprints a number of articles about rent boys and the recent recommendation that matters could be improved by legalised homosexual brothels.

One cutting contains a moment of pure Alan Bennett: 'Don't print it all,' begs one renter, flashing his business card. 'It'll kill my mum. She's got cancer. She thinks I'm in catering.' In a sense, his poor mother's not entirely on the wrong track, for catering of a kind is indeed her son's profession. That's where the liberal dilemma over renters crops up. On the one hand we feel we shouldn't sit in judgement on the urges men seek to satisfy; on the other we have to recognise that the rights of the people who service this industry are peculiarly vulnerable, renters being open to exploitation from violent, drug-pushing racketeers, to abuse from weird clients and to HIV infection.

Rod Dungate's engaging splurge of a play takes these issues on board without, as it were, making a central issue of any of them. The aim is evidently to draw us into the interconnected lives of five young men who happen to be prostitutes in Birmingham and the play may strike you, for longish stretches, as being more like the first four episodes of a soap about renters, run back to back, than a dramatised documentary. What overarching structure there is is provided by 15-year-old Danny (excellent Ian Pepperell) whom we see progress from naive, waif-like neophyte, just escaped from a children's home, to spiffed-up heart-breaker (his 'straight' protector falls in love with him and ditches a girlfriend), to the besuited vice-ring figure at the end. Then he recruits fresh talent from the sort of homes where he once languished for the delectation of the top-brass clients of a transnational outfit.

Dungate does not patronise these characters with pity; indeed, there are times in Anthony Clark's beautifully acted production when the mood feels artificially upbeat. A 'golden showers' sequence, for example, is all joky golden streamers cascading out of lager cans. It's true that, at the time, Danny would be happy to do more than just 'pee' on this customer. But what's intrinsically degrading about the encounter is lost to view.

James Dreyfus as Sean, a queeny, compulsive shoplifter and clucking mother-parody, drives the proceedings forward with his likeable, bitchy wit and the play offers some sharp tragi- comic views of the vicissitudes of street life, where sugar-daddies turn fickle when their waifs get wings. In the end, what struck me as most depressing about these lives was not the moral bleakness but the intellectual emptiness, their range of interests apparently running the whole gamut from A to A1.

The Drill Hall, London WC1 (071-637 8270).