Alexi Kaye Campbell’s first play, previously seen at the Royal Court in 2008, is known as a very good gay rights play. This is a shame because attaching the word “rights” — or indeed “gay” — to a play immediately saddles it with a worthiness that can only narrow its appeal. True, in the shorter second act, the play gets close to speechifying and proselytising. But never mind. The fizzing first act is one of the best new pieces of stage writing this century.
The play’s three main protagonists exist in the unenlightened 1950s and anything-goes now. With remarkably deft direction by Jamie Lloyd — who directed the play at the Royal Court and revives it here as part of his eye-catching Trafalgar Transformed season — the action ingeniously segues back and forth between the two eras.
In London-then, married professionals Sylvia (Hayley Atwell) and Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton) have a cordial relationship with writer Oliver (Al Weaver), whose new book Sylvia is illustrating.
Polite conversation between the three is charged by the men’s increasing awareness that they are attracted to each other. In London-now, Philip and Oliver are much freer but not much more fulfilled.
While modern-day journalist Oliver is addicted to exploring his sexuality, often in parks, Philip is only alienated by the infidelities, and leaves. Sylvia, meanwhile, is now needy Oliver’s confidant.
It’s a beautifully structured piece of work. And Hadden-Paton is rather devastating as the secretly gay married man shackled by convention and his own self-loathing. Weaver is also terrific depicting latter and modern-day versions of camp — one suppressed, the other a riot.
And Matthew Horne turns in two flashy but enjoyable cameos as a gay escort and lads’ mag editor.
The main issue — the fight for gay rights — is less thought-provoking when it is over-articulated. But the play is brilliant where it depicts the solitude of lives lived in lonely denial — and none lonelier than Atwell’s 1950s Sylvia, who is as trapped as her husband.