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Above the stag, under the arches

September 22, 2015

ArtsTheatre | by Harry Seymour

Underneath a railway arch in Vauxhall, nestled between garages and gyms fronted with corrugated iron doors, sits the Above The Stag theatre. It is, to date, the only full-time professional LGBT theatre in the UK, producing theatre with an emphasis on gay lives. A quick glance at their past seasons shows the ability of Artistic Director Peter Bull to create a blend of sexual comic pieces (Rent Boy the Musical anyone?) with perhaps slightly more highbrow plays and performance pieces. Two of the latter category are hitting the stage in Vauxhall now and in a month’s time – namely David Steven’s Australian play The Sum of Us, and a new twist on Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter written and directed by Phil Wilmott – A Brief Gay Encounter.

Stephen Connery-Brown in The Sum of Us At Above The Stag Theatre, London

The Sum of Us was a hit Off-Broadway in 1990 and later became an award winning film starring Russell Crowe. A comic drama that follows a gay son, his accepting straight father, and how the world around them reacts to their unusual relationship – it’s an unusual piece. It’s also a play in the strange position of essentially being a two-hander, but having a cast of four. Jeff and his dad barely leave the stage and hold much of the drama between them, except for two almost-cameo like roles from a potential love interest for Jeff, and a new potential wife for his dad Harry. During their last rehearsals I talked to Rory Hawkins who plays Greg, the love interest of Jeff, about the play and the theatre. He spoke particularly of the realism of the play and how they approached creating a living room drama in a tiny urban space in the Vauxhall arches. “It’s really cool, searching for the really exciting moments, making it so domestic, because the relationship between the father and son is really domestic. They eat together, they drink together, they go out – the getting ready to go out is a regular thing. You have to find that world. Finding things on set, where’s my beer, where’s my plate, where’s the salt and pepper – all those little things.” Hawkins comes across as a passionate young actor, leaning forward with enthusiasm when I ask about the effects of having an authentically Australian cast playing Aussie parts: “It’s really fun, instantly there’s all these cultural in-jokes, the slang comes out, and its funny what comes out, just remembering talking about sauce bottles and what sort of stuff would be on the table, where the light switches would be.”

It becomes clear through talking to Hawkins that this is a theatre that devotes time and effort to ensuring the best possible production is put on. This feeling is later confirmed as I see The Sum of Us and find an astonishingly detailed set and beautifully intimate performances from all four actors. While the dad Harry (Stephen Connery-Brown) leads the cast with a barnstorming performance of bravado, fear and love, he is matched well by Tim McFarland as Jeff. Actually it’s in the smaller performances of Rory’s Greg and the even smaller role of Joyce that we see the detail that director Gene David Kirk has instilled in every aspect of the play. (It’s worth noting that Annabel Pemberton does some of the best stage crying I’ve seen in a while, without hacking tears from her eyes).

Meanwhile, rehearsals have begun for A Brief Gay Encounter, and I caught up with writer/director Phil Wilmott to see how he was planning to reinterpret Coward’s classic. It began, he explains with seeing the play a few years ago and thinking “you could have two men playing these parts and you wouldn’t have to change the script at all.” This was, he states, the “genesis” of it, a project that now sees him keeping the structure of each scene the same, but re-writing it so the central figures are two gay men. I look a little bemused until Wilmott explains; “It’s still about two people who can’t have a love affair because they’re married.” He talks with verve about how he wants people to cry, to invoke an old-fashioned romantic atmosphere: “I’d like it to be sexy, but I want to try and carefully not let that unbalance – have two hot guys who just take their shirts off all the time – I want to discover like the sexiness of restraint really”.

This sense of naked hot men is a one that seems a little entwined with the Above The Stag theatre. As a theatre catering almost exclusively to gay men, it seems inevitable that they would put on pieces such as ‘Rent Boy the Musical’ and ‘Bathhouse The Musical’, but as Artistic Director Peter Bull has argued, August is a hard month with a lot of theatre-lovers leaving the city. If nudity gets bums on seats in a small fringe venue that relies on them, then there will be nudity galore. What seems to be the saving grace that pulls the theatre away from seediness is the balance that the August sell-out season affords the rest of the year. Plays like A Brief Gay Encounter or The Sum of Us would almost certainly not be given the time of day anywhere else. Rory points out that the audience is loyal, ‘they’ve got a really good subscriber base, people who support the theatre and what it does. It’s what theatre does in a way, and it’s giving younger actors the opportunity to cut their teeth. You’ve got an incredibly supportive team here.’

Phil Wilmott too is returning to LGBT theatre after a long time away. He began with a lot of gay theatre in the beginning of his career but lost interest, beginning projects such as Greek Theatre open-air on the riverside. He wonders where this generation’s gay plays are but relents that ‘when I go and talk to young gay artists and I say ‘where’s the gay theatre?’ the brilliant thing is that they don’t feel they have to identify themselves as gay any more than they are just playwrights. Now there’s no necessity to label yourself, to ghetto-ise yourself’. But – he halts – there will always be a place for the Above The Stag Theatre. ‘I think there’ll be a market for gay men to talk to gay men. For us to get together and have a little conversation with ourselves.’

It seems to me that the Above The Stag has found its niche and serves it with aplomb. When they need the cash, they’ll happily admit that sex sells and produce a musical full of topless muscled actors, but they balance it with thoughtful, intelligent, and well-produced theatre that allows the theatre to really make a name for itself. As I leave the theatre, Tim who plays Jeff in The Sum of Us catches my arm and introduces himself. I ask him what he wants from the play and he thinks a moment before mentioning the audience ‘I’d like to move them. I hope that’s the gift we can give them – that it moves them’. After the silences, sobs, laughter and applause that greeted The Sum of Us in performance, it seems pretty assured that he can rest easy on that one.

By Douglas Dunn

More information on upcoming performances can be found at http://www.abovethestag.com