Goodbye Gilbert Harding, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

A lawless heart

By Rhoda Koenig
Thursday 05 December 2013 05:43
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He wasn't young or pretty, but curmudgeonly Gilbert Harding was one of the first British television stars. With the public as shy about expressing their indignation as they then were about sex, Harding was their vicarious outlet for it, the Basil Fawlty of the Fifties, without that character's cravenness and fatal overestimation of his abilities. As his secretary puts it, "They expect him to say the unsayable on their behalf". But there was one thing Gilbert Harding could not say. He was a homosexual, and every time he let his hand rest on a young man's knee, he was breaking the law.

Leonard Preston's play is a work in progress, so my criticisms will be numerous and specific. The interest is too heavily concentrated in the first act and the start of the second, when Harding is vainly trying to seduce the secretary, and is spied upon and then visited by the police. Subsequently, Harding contests only with himself, as he tries to find peace and a meaning for his life (don't we all, dear). The character of the secretary, Robert Midgely (the play is based on the real Midgely's reminiscences), is a bit vague – we're told nothing about his class or family background. We're told nothing at all about Harding's mother (he breaks down after she dies) or about Nancy Spain – it's a bit much to expect us to know that she was a lesbian novelist and journalist. Composed of scenes between only two characters at a time, the play has a somewhat hollow, written-for-radio feeling, emphasised by the starkness of the set. I do not think the real Gilbert Harding would have said "acronym" when he meant "abbreviation''.

None of this, however, prevents the play, in David Giles's skilful production, from being clever and touching, full of comedy and insight, and chilling in its recreation of the terror felt by homosexuals in those shameful years of the sex Gestapo. Then in his fifties, Harding, despite his robust public persona, was self-destructive and bitter, despising the role of licensed buffoon, and parading his intellect (or so he thought) by stuffing his conversation with long words. "Sustenance!" says his exasperated cleaning lady (adorable Frances Cuka). "Why can't he say 'food'?" "I am at the summit of some kind of heap," he says, and the connotations of that last word are not pretty.

As Midgely, who is also gay but far more reserved, Jonathon Cullen beautifully embodies the man's decency and tact, inflected humorously by his partly unconscious imitation of the great man. Edward Woodward is, surprisingly, more effective in the campy scenes (as when he suggests that, since Midgely doesn't know shorthand, he might come across with something "in lieu") than in the dignified ones. But he is magnificent in the scene in which the two men are intimidated by a police detective, and their roles are reversed, the indiscreet Harding protecting the trembling, shattered Midgely. To the policeman's triumphant "You admit – !" Harding grandly replies, "'Admit' is a somewhat overloaded verb, even for such an attenuated vocabulary as yours."

Despite the play's sensitivity, the little burst of applause that followed showed that the most touching thing about an evening can sometimes be the audience.

To Saturday (01483 440000)

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