The Boys in the Band review: Mark Gatiss is brilliantly sneering ★★★

Superb performances breathe new life into this groundbreaking but dated play about a group of gay friends

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In its first incarnation in 1968, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band was radical – a play about gay men, a year before the Stonewall riots, was unheard of.

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Revived by Adam Penford at Finsbury Park’s Park Theatre, a distinctly retro production hints at a self-awareness that it has dated, but the play’s darker themes of self-loathing, depression, and the struggle with the acceptance of one’s own identity, still bite.

Set in a New York apartment, a group of gay friends meet to celebrate the birthday of Harold (Mark Gatiss). Each wrestles with his own homosexuality, in a miscellany stereotypes: James Holmes’s flamboyant Emory, the depressive Donald (Daniel Boys), the sparring lovers Larry (Ben Mansfield) and Hank (Nathan Nolan), Bernard (Greg Lockett) who sustains flinching casual racism from the others, and host Michael (Gatiss’s real-life husband Ian Hallard), whose self-hatred embitters him.

The unplanned arrival of the straight Alan – an old friend of Michael’s who he has kept his sexuality hidden from – creates a predicament for the host. Closet yourself, and bear the shame of asking your friends to do the same, or relax and run the risk of facing bigotry and disdain from a friend you do not wish to lose. As the group adjust to the outsider, their interactions descend from waspish barbs between mutual friends into a bullying, revelatory game that becomes downright cruel, sinister and tragic.

Daniel Boys, Jack Derges, Mark Gatiss and Ben Mansfield in The Boys in the Band (photos: Darren Bell)

The comedy is at times a little sitcom-esque, but there is real wit in the script and there are laughs to be had – particularly from Holmes, who steals the show as the brilliantly camp Emory, whose gradual inebriation encourages him to shed his defences and eventually reveals a past of heartbreak and humiliation that strikes a universal cord. Gatiss, whose character enters the action later and thus feels underused, shines as the mocking, sneering Harold.

This is a poignant production that reminds us that times may have changed, but many of the issues explored still feel unsettlingly contemporary.

The Boys in the Band is at London’s Park Theatre until 30 October, then on tour at Salford’s The Lowry 3-6 November, Brighton’s Theatre Royal 8–12 November and the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 14-19 November.

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