I was reminded of this incident at the Arts Theatre on Friday night when only around 20 people turned up to see Tom Minter's Exposition and many of these appeared to be attached to the author and the director, Areta Breeze, also present, swelling the throng. I'd been seated in the midst of this evidently necessary support group but managed to relocate myself a couple of rows back. The performance hadn't been going long before I realised that my preferred position would be sinking quietly beneath the floorboards.
It's not the subject (the homo-erotic bond between two friends in disintegrating marriages that have been based on lies) nor (though one of the players is badly miscast) is it the acting that has you shifting in your seat. The cause for dismay is the unvarying woodenness of the treatment, and the way that Minter's dialogue drains plausibility and point from the situations at the same time as Breeze's portentous direction is strenuously hinting at hidden depths.
The play alternates occasions where the two couples meet, or fail fully to meet, for their regular outings at the cinema and theatre with scenes where we overhear the men making private phone calls. In the first stretch we discover that Niall Ashdown's William is a failed writer, still deludedly seeking greatness and battening off his teacher wife (Laura Endelman), and that Trevor Sellers's James, a tetchily self-important right-wing barrister, is well on the way to alienating the whole world, not just his long-suffering spouse (Kate Anthony).
William and James shared rooms at college and all these years later, in circumstances that seem to involve you believing that people can wander freely in and out of a barrister's chambers at dead of night, they discover that they have just shared a rent boy. By some nifty work with the bust on which James keeps his wig, William removes this down-to-his-underpants blackmail threat (played by Robert Miles) and, in a last-minute switch to territory bordering on Patrick Hamilton's Rope, they look forward to a kinky future of renewed intimacy and of capitalising on the crime, turning it to a publishable rather than a punishable occurrence.
Stiff, literally unspeakable dialogue in which characters say things like "Since the fair days of collegiate youth" and "It's been aeons since I've felt this potent" don't help you to credit the relationship between the male pair, either way back when or now. James says that he loved the fire his friend had as an undergraduate, but - notwithstanding the fact that the depredations of time are a concern of the play - Mr Ashdown's performance suggests that William would have had, in his student years, all the charisma of a Northern chemist.
After sticking up for them, the play loses sight of the wives: the victims of this male nostalgia for the days before disillusionment and (by association) marriage. Exposition begins with images of audience discontent in theatres and cinemas. A case, for me, of art mirroring life.
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