Review: Straight (Bush Theatre)

Writer: DC Moore
Director: Richard Wilson
Date seen: 15 December 2012

No homo?

I stumbled across this production by accident, if truth be told: originally I wanted to get back on the theatrical horse by seeing Hero at the Royal Court, but it was sold out. Realising that most of the big, well-publicised theatres were nearly impossible to get tickets for, I thought it might be an idea to look a little further afield, and I remembered seeing some good shows at the Bush Theatre in the past. When I checked their website and saw this play, inspired by Lynn Shelton’s film Humpday, was coming up soon, it was an intriguing enough proposition (no pun intended) to convince me to book tickets – but as a gay man and former drama student who’s seen more than his fair share of fringe theatre over the years, I wondered if there was really much that could be said on the the subject of male sexuality that I hadn’t already encountered to the point of satiety.

As it happens, there was: the deep but uneasy friendship between Lewis (Henry Pettigrew) and Waldorf (Philip McGinley) is at the centre of this play as the latter returns from a lengthy spell travelling around the world and arrives in the small studio flat owned by Lewis and his wife Morgan (Jessica Ransom), who are stuck living somewhere that doesn’t really suit their child-raising aspirations as a result of a poorly-timed investment that’s now mired in negative equity. The claustrophobia of this arrangement, even before Waldorf arrives, is well-served both by Moore’s script and James Cotterill’s set – the early moments of the play show us a neatly-choreographed routine that Lewis and Morgan have developed whereby one has to play music while the other one uses the toilet so that they don’t overhear each other defecating. This, combined with Morgan’s pertinent questions about Lewis’s need to lock the bathroom door when she’s the only other person who lives there, underscore the theme that while this is a happy and loving relationship, it’s not an entirely secure one.

This becomes abundantly clear upon Waldorf’s arrival (penis-first, because he’s That Guy) when Lewis suddenly becomes brighter and more alive than he has been since the lights went up, even though they’ve not seen each other in years. That Morgan is a third wheel at this point quickly becomes apparent, especially since she literally vanishes from the stage for quite some time after this. Morgan’s lengthy absence is one of several contrivances the play asks us to overlook, but it pales in comparison to the one around which the play’s central theme revolves: after a lengthy drinking session (and a little bit of pot-smoking) with Waldorf and his latest one-night stand, spacey amateur porn actress Steph (Jenny Rainsford), the conversation repeatedly returns to Lewis’s vanilla sensibilities, leading to the proposition that Lewis and Waldorf should have sex and film it to submit to an amateur porn festival.

Interestingly, the proposition itself happens offstage; we only learn of it the morning after, as the boys’ hazy recollections of their night begin to surface. Rather than do the sensible thing and laugh it off, neither one wants to be the first to back down – especially since the alarmingly well-organised Lewis has apparently already booked them a hotel room. In fact, going through with it becomes a matter of personal pride – Lewis is so adamant not to be seen as sexually unadventurous that he’s determined to go through with it despite his obvious terror at the thought of it – and the matter of telling Morgan what he’s planning.

Fortunately, the script rises above the implausible concept – the play soon develops a twisted logic of its own where it’s easy to understand why the deed means so much to Lewis and Waldorf. Despite a tendency towards quippiness, the dialogue feels real – the in-jokes shared by Lewis and Morgan (and also by Lewis and Waldorf) have the ring of authenticity to them. They’re not especially funny, but they do feel like the sort of thing that people with a long shared history do say to each other. It also captures that very British sense of finding silence painful – there are numerous cases throughout the production of characters making things far worse than they need to be purely because they can’t quite bring themselves to stop talking.

There’s not a weak link in the cast either – Henry Pettigrew in particular is completely charming as Lewis, ably capturing the character’s sexual ambiguity as well as his need to prove himself. The female cast have a slightly harder task in front of them than the men since they’re around a lot less and therefore don’t have as much time to make an impact, but they manage to bring extra dimensions to their roles: Jessica Ransom takes a character who could potentially have been extremely unsympathetic and brings a warmth and vulnerability to her that left me caring more about what would happen to her than I did about either of the two male leads. Jenny Rainsford, too, has a character who’s little more than a plot device, but she makes her a very entertaining one, and the impact of her character lingers long after she departs.

The only real disappointment of the play is the ending – I’ve never been a big fan of plays that end with one character repeating the same line of dialogue two or three times, because it feels like a lazy way of signalling to the audience that the show’s over when you can’t think what else to do, though admittedly in this case the ending arrives so suddenly that a bit of overt signalling might indeed be necessary. Ultimately, I think it needed a slightly tidier conclusion – the audience is left to interpret things for themselves a little too much in terms of what becomes of the characters, and that’s rather frustrating. I don’t mind leaving a play and not having all the answers, but this one didn’t really give me any.

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