Coming Clean, King's Head Theatre, London, review: an entertaining revival of Kevin Elyot's debut play

This bittersweet 1980s comedy offers a frank, moving portrait of gay relationships just before the Aids crisis

Paul Taylor
Wednesday 09 August 2017 14:10 BST
Elliot Hadley and Tom Lambert in Coming Clean
Elliot Hadley and Tom Lambert in Coming Clean (Paul Nicholas Dyke)

Just as the Park Theatre is presenting the posthumous premiere of Kevin Elyot's play Twilight Song, the King's Head offers us the first London revival of the dramatist's debut piece, originally seen at the Bush Theatre in 1982. Adam Spreadbury-Maher's production headlines the theatre's 2017 Queer Season.

There are glimmers here of the bittersweet humour and caustic compassion that inform Elyot's Aids-era masterpiece, My Night With Reg, and fainter intimations of the structural skill and the penchant for reiterated patterns that became integral to his preoccupation with loneliness and heartbreak. But this entertaining revival shows that the piece is valuable, on the one hand, for its frank, funny and moving portrait of gay relationships captured fifteen years after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 and just before the rise of the Aids crisis. And, on the other, for the forthright way it wrestles with the enduring problem of what parts fidelity and sexual freedom play in a long-term loving relationship.

The play is set in a flat in Kentish Town, crammed with period detail in Amanda Mascarenhas's evocatively dingy design; in the same way, Spreadbury-Maher works in a mischievous wealth of musical references from the era (tellingly timed snatches from Barbra Streisand's Guilty album, for example). Tony, a would-be writer, and his partner Greg, a New York-born academic, are coming up to their fifth anniversary and think they have love all sussed out. They are in a committed relationship with room for the odd bit of sex on the side, provided that this is restricted to one-night-stands never repeated with the same man nor indulged in in the marital home. Game, set and match.

But can love and sex be so crisply compartmentalised? Is it possible to remain faithful to one lover while seeking erotic thrills on the scene? Cracks in the couple's self-deluded have-cake-and-eat-it arrangement appear with the arrival of Robert, a pretty young out-of-work actor that they employ as a cleaner.

Lee Knight gives a very fine performance as Tony – the flightiness and wit giving way to a bruised vulnerability and depth of pain, signalled, for example, in the desolate way he registers the alien smells on his dressing gown. The liveliest part of the proceedings comes from his friendship with Elliot Hadley's wonderfully effusive William, an outrageous round-the-clock cruiser and closet romantic who, in these pre-Grindr days, has to put in the leg-work at discos and cottages and is never happier than when regaling Tony with chapter-and-verse about his sexual conquests. “He was so proud of his dimmer-switch. Kept readjusting it to get the mood just right. I nearly said, only thing that'd improve this room'd be a power-cut.”

It's a pity that Tom Lambert, while looking the part, is a bit wooden as the Adonis with the feather duster, and that Jason Nwoga takes Greg's earnestness to slightly forbidding lengths. “We've shared each other round half the gay scene in London!” the latter exclaims, changing the rules and suggesting that it's a bit late for Tony to be craving monogamy. Is their aim to be honest with each other (which might pull them apart) or to stick together (which might involve lies)? How Tony tries to adjust to the new order is the subject of the startling final scene which I will not spoil for you.

His mother sends food parcels to the gay couple, like a doting in-law. Yet when there is an incident of homophobic violence, they decide not to go to the police for fear of being ignored or mocked. For all that William feels the need archly to up to the social shame of living in the “lower reaches of Tufnell Park", this is still a world continuous with ours and it's lovingly realised here. Recommended.

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