Compare and contrast the public's perception of gay people in the 1950's with today. This is something that that a teacher might set their students to investigate. No need, as that's exactly what Alexi Kaye Campbell does in his stirring and effective play The Pride.
I first saw this play a few years ago at the Sheffield Crucible in their Studio space and for a play built on claustrophobia, it benefited from being staged in such a small venue. You really felt the pain of the characters and there was nowhere to hide for the audience.
This time round, the venue is the Manchester Opera House and at times, the production does feel a bit lost on its vast stage. But thanks to the polished performers and Soutra Gilmour's striking set design, it does deliver the blistering blows required to leave an lasting impact on the audience.
Sure, there are some gay stereotypes on show, including a man who gets his kicks from sex with strangers, a repressed man who lashes out when anyone gets close to the truth of his secret life, and a writer dating a married man. These stock characters do change though, as opposed to appearing to the audience as rigid and acceptable. The one thing that Campbell does manage to achieve is to question your own views, whether you are gay or straight. There is an overriding sense of one size does not fit all.
When you consider the huge following Graham Norton has, you may feel that gay representation has moved on. Yet on ITV, Jonathan Ross talks freely about his sex life, Norton does not. This play poses questions about reduction – reducing a gay character to a list of likeable qualities. When that list crosses over into a territory some find uncomfortable, bang goes their following. The other interesting aspect of this play is that it explores Equality and Diversity – and renders it much more than a buzzword used for OFSTED Inspectors to tick boxes during a teacher's lesson observation.
Gilmour's set almost holds a mirror up the audience and says have a look at your own views and ideology and compare them with the characters and this works brilliantly. As does Matthew Horne's trio of roles. Many have mentioned this feels like celebrity casting. It's not, because Horne delivers far more than is on the page. The Lad's Mag journalist who cites his gay Uncle's as a role model is inspiring as the man died with a partner the family had only met once and Horne's character questions this as a child.
Harry Hadden-Paton is cold and brooding in one turn and loving and betrayed in the next. He brings a huge amount of gravitas to both roles. Al Weaver's characters are out and proud and on the verge of being so. Again, he delivers convincing turns. Naomi Sheldon is better as the modern day character – brimming over with politics and willing to fight the long fight.
The play has flaws. The 1950's setting almost feels too conservative and self-aware to take the audience anywhere new. But once you have seen the whole play, it makes more sense and fits like a glove, however stilted it first appears to be.
The Pride is not afraid to probe and poke around in the recesses of your mind. It offers no answers and expects the audience to work hard and for that it deserves high praise. Granted it's not a Beautiful Thing, but neither is life sometimes.
The Pride is at the Manchester Opera House until 24 January.