Whichever way it swings, the play's the thing Pull the other one, it's got belles on

They announce Burning Blue is to close and pop! there goes the pink bubble. So that's the end of the commercially acceptable gay play, then.

Time was when it seemed you couldn't move for gay theatre. Young dramatists such as Kevin Elyot and Jonathan Harvey were flavour of more than just the month, clutching awards as their comedies My Night With Reg and Beautiful Thing moved from the fringe to the West End. David Greer's gays-in-the-military drama Burning Blue followed, opening in July at the majestic Theatre Royal, Haymarket, and it was inevitable that sections of the press, rising to the bait of the near-obligatory trend of stage nudity, would mutter about a pink plague.

But that was then, and this is now. Burning Blue comes off in early October, just 10 weeks into its run. My Night With Reg and Boom-Bang-A-Bang, Jonathan Harvey's latest studio comedy, both closed a week last Saturday. Where bare male flesh once abounded, suddenly the stage seems denuded of gay plays. "Has the bubble of pink theatre finally burst?" fretted this week's Gay Gazette.

On the available evidence, reports of the death of gay drama seem a touch premature. As Kevin Elyot is the first to admit, My Night With Reg was reaching the end of its life, having first opened at the Royal Court in April last year. Harvey's Boom-Bang-A-Bang was never designed to move beyond the intimacy of the Bush Theatre. But the young Liverpudlian is still writing, and his next show, The Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club, opens at the Donmar in November. And another gay fringe play, Patrick Wilde's What's Wrong With Angry? transfers to the Arts Theatre this week. Everything looks rather healthy.

But the fact that the bubble can so easily appear to have burst shows how fragile the West End pink presence really is - the claims of an over- enthusiastic gay press and Fleet Street's homo-baiters notwithstanding.

Neil Bartlett, the out gay artistic director of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, is particularly cynical about the notion of a sudden explosion of gay drama. "Journalists have asked me about it since 1982, on a six-monthly basis, and the first newspaper article I know of saying there is too much gay theatre is dated 1896," he says.

As one whose own writing has often highlighted the centrality of the gay sensibility in British theatre, Bartlett is not just wary of oversimplifications about the irresistible rise or sudden death of gay drama. He is also cautious of the concept itself. The "gay" label has been used in the past to put his work down, and he says it will be interesting to see who comes - and why - to see his own current production of Somerset Maugham's The Letter, starring Joanna Lumley. "I'm known to be a gay artist, Somerset Maugham was a gay writer and, hey presto, we're doing a story about a woman who shoots someone. Is that 'real life' or is it gay life?"

Others concede that gay plays have seemed to be on the up in the past couple of years. Julie Parker, who as artistic director of London's Drill Hall has been instrumental in showcasing new lesbian and gay talent, says there has been a rise in overt gay writing, where once it was only possible to detect a gay sensibility. But there is a crucial rider. "What we're looking at is predominantly images of gay men. It is very difficult to find images of lesbians in the West End," she says, citing only the negative imagery of The Killing of Sister George, recently at the Ambassadors. "We've seen all this lesbian chic nonsense, but we're still not the acceptable face of theatre."

Parker says the problem with what she calls "disposable fashion politics", under which gay drama can appear modish, is that such trends are just as easily reversed. Jonathan Harvey agrees. He says his own success may not make much difference to future gay writers wooing West End producers. "After Beautiful Thing my work was taken more seriously and I was read quicker, but I don't know what it would be like for another gay writer. People might hedge their bets and say it might be feasible to do a Jonathan Harvey or a Kevin Elyot play, but would it be feasible to do a play by writer X?"

Feasibility, of course, means bums on seats, and that's where the closure of Burning Blue is significant. The producer, Robert Fox, said this week the show, which has lost more than pounds 350,000, has been taken off early because of low advance bookings, poor business in an exceptionally hot August, and a lack of major stars in the production. But the decision, taken just four weeks into the play's run, has left the author, David Greer, bitter. Weekly takings compared favourably with other West End shows, he insists: "There was a loss of nerve. Granted, we were losing money, but we always expected to in August. The bottom line is it was too soon to tell." So could the play's gay content have made the producers jumpier than they would otherwise have been? "Perhaps," he says, guardedly.

There is no doubt backers get nervy if a play begins to acquire an exclusively gay reputation. While fringe shows such as Harvey's Boom-Bang-A-Bang can survive with gay support alone if need be, audience appeal needs to be broader to fill a West End house for any length of time. Perhaps because of this, Greer is keen to stress his play is neither gay nor straight but "about people". Kevin Elyot, too, insists the notion of gay theatre as a category is a critical cul-de-sac. "It would be foolish to deny there is a gay presence that is making itself felt, but you can't lump all us gay writers together. We're not all saying the same thing. What have Neil Bartlett and I got in common in terms of our work and our style? All of us should be judged in comparison with any other dramatist."

So instead of asking whether gay theatre has died, ought we to ponder whether it ever existed? Absolutely not, says Mark Shenton, veteran drama critic for the gay press. He agrees that relatively few gay plays hit the West End, but he says there has been an explosion of gay drama on the fringe, with waves of writers feeling more confident about coming out and choosing sexuality as their theme. Unfortunately, talent is often in short supply. "Basically, nobody who's any good wants to be pigeon- holed. They all see themselves as people working in the mainstream who happen to be gay. That doesn't mean they aren't doing gay theatre."

Shenton says My Night With Reg ran for so long because it was a gay play that found a straight audience to sustain it. This perhaps offers an unwelcome conclusion for gay theatre-goers: gay drama must appeal to heterosexuals if it is to endure in the West End. It is equally galling that the closure of Burning Blue may make producers shy away from shows with gay themes for a while.

But there is an up side. Chances are, if history runs to schedule, in six months from now another journalist could be asking Neil Bartlett why there is no much gay theatre around.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent