It has been almost 50 years since the first play openly depicting a gay relationship appeared on a British stage. But you’ll be forgiven if you’ve never heard of Spitting Image by Colin Spencer, or if you confuse it with the satirical puppet show of the 1980s.
Spencer’s “mad, wild comedy” depicts two men in a loving relationship, one of whom becomes convinced he is pregnant. After a caesarian reveals that the child is indeed there, the story follows the authorities’ hysterical reaction, their desire to experiment on the baby, the government’s treatment of the same-sex couple and disparagement of their ability to be parents.
“It is really a play about convention and how anyone unconventional, a rebel, gets persecuted,” Spencer, 83, says. “It is written as a comedy, a mad, wild comedy. Because it is better to laugh if you can.”
Spitting Image hasn’t been performed in 48 years but is due to headline the King’s Head Theatre’s Queer Season in August.
The lazy homophobia of the age Spitting Image was born into meant it was never published and nearly forgotten. It was first staged at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1968 just a year after homosexuality had been decriminalised and in the wake of the Theatres Act which meant that for the first time since 1737 new plays were not subject to government censorship.
To say it was groundbreaking is like describing the Pope as a Catholic. The production was a fringe hit with audiences packing into the Hampstead Theatre. But when it transferred to the West End’s Duke of York it was something of a flop, provoking boos from the, presumably, morally outraged audience.
King’s Head artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher unearthed a copy of the script in Oscar Lewenstein’s (a legendary theatre producer) archives at the V&A. Having read the “brilliant play” and decided it was “crying out for revival”, Spreadbury-Maher tracked Spencer down at his home near to Brighton and the rest, as they say, is history.
“It is undoubtedly the first openly gay play but it was never published because homophobia was still rife,” says Spencer. “Nobody thought would be of any interest so it was never published and there were no copies around, so it wasn’t even possible for amateur groups to do it over the years.”
Spencer, who describes himself as bisexual, says “life has improved immeasurably” for gay people throughout his lifetime. But he is surprised how relevant Spitting Image is in 2016, in a Britain where equal same-sex marriage is nascent and where the science behind “three-parent babies” is within reach; a world where our Prime Minister, Theresa May, has a mixed record on LGBT rights having campaigned for equal marriage but having voted against same-sex adoption and the repeal of section 28.
But while Spitting Image feeds into wider historical and political discourse it is ultimately a very personal story to Spencer who was denied access to his young son after his first marriage broke down and who faced hostility in a 1960s court system which still viewed homosexuals as degenerates.
“My wife took her revenge out on me through our son, who was only four, by stopping me having access to him,” Spencer says. “I went to the law and to judges and, of course, they were all on her side. I was thought of as irresponsible. Not only homosexual but irresponsible. The truth is I’ve been bisexual all my life, because I got married again. But I’ve also had long gay relationships. I’ve been pretty, kind of fair [laughs].”
The pain of being denied access to his child, of having his abilities as a parent questioned as a result of his relationship choices is the searing bedrock of Spitting Image. “The motivation stemmed from my loss. I managed to get some kind of access eventually but I had to fight through the courts. But I didn’t get fair access. She [my ex-wife] also made me sign something to say I needed to be chaperoned by a responsible woman, either my mother or one my two sisters -- and that really was dreadful. I mean, how to humiliate your husband.”
Spitting Image arrived in Britain the same year that Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band - a production credited with changing the face of gay theatre in New York -- became an off-Broadway hit. Coincidentally The Boys in the Band is having its first UK revival for 20 years in September at the Park Theatre. But as Spencer says when I mention this, his work couldn’t be more different. “I hate all that camp-erie. I have rather a distaste for it. I hated it in life and I hate it on the stage. So I wasn’t at all influenced by it except to do the opposite,” he says.
“I’m so delighted with society today and with the idea of gender becoming more fluid. It is a point of view I’ve put into novels, books and plays all my life.”
Spencer hopes that the first night at the King’s Head will be different from its 1968 equivalent at the Duke of York. “We were booed from the gallery. Somehow these plays which aren’t particularly conventional never work in a plush, velvet and gilt theatre. West End audiences don’t tend to like being unnerved.”
Spitting Image, King’s Head Theatre, London 2-27 August
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies