Theatre: Uneven path to camp heaven

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The Independent Culture
I PERSIST in the belief that Jonathan Harvey has more natural playwriting talent in his camply cocked little finger than the majority of his hipper contemporaries can muster in both hands. It's a conviction, however, that continues to be put to the stiffest of tests. Don't even get me started on the subject of his current TV sitcom, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, a programme in which the one truly funny thing is the helpless laugh-track. And now there are the scenes set in a gay man's idea of the celestial afterlife (all fluffy white clouds and, blow me down, Judy Garland) that punctuate Harvey's latest stage work, Hushaby Mountain.

As in Guiding Star, his recent National Theatre play which tackled the emotional fall-out of the Hillsborough disaster, the subject here is the guilt and anger of the survivor. Suppose you had lost your lover to Aids. After six months, you embark on an uneasy friendship with a much younger man who also turns out to be HIV positive. Except that, as this new troubled relationship develops, so does the research that has now significantly increased the life expectancy of sufferers. How would you feel about that? Not unmixed. Helped by fine performances from Stuart Laing as Connor, the survivor and Andrew This Life Lincoln as the dying, then posthumous Danny, it's these conflicted pangs that the play, at its considerable best, explores in all their tragicomic messiness.

There's a simple but very telling device in the piece which allows Harvey to present the "then" and the "now" of Aids and its effects with an unsentimentally poignant parallelism. Again and again, whether in hotel room, restaurant, beach, or at the flat of E-guzzling, coke-snorting best friend and husband (Rose Keegan and excellent David Kennedy), the new lover will retreat to the bathroom (or wherever) and Danny will re-emerge through the same door, dissolving the past into the present. I could have done without the tingly, slightly supernatural music that accompanies these temporal shifts in Paul Miller's English Touring Theatre production. And it's true, too, that in the economy of the play, Danny remains in Connor's life only as complete memories and not - as one tends to remember loved ones - as a still-active presence in one's head, arguing and intervening (an uncomfortable truth Peter Nichols brilliantly dramatised in Forget-Me-Not Lane). But as a means of conveying the heart-twisting unfairness of it all, this clever structural scheme is truly inspired.

There are sequences - like the one where Danny tells his friends he's tested positive and the dinner party unravels in all sorts of chaotic, unpredictable, painfully funny ways - that demonstrate Harvey's generous and acute powers of observation. The price you have to pay for this is watching the bafflingly inferior sections that show Danny awaiting entry to spangly, camp heaven. For reasons you would have to be God to understand, the delay seems to have been caused by Danny's estranged mother (Elizabeth Estensen). Down on earth, she's in a mental ward; up in the skies, she rows a boat and thinks she's Judy Garland. Well, which of us doesn't? All the same, you wish this clumsily integrated figure would fall overboard.