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.

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