The Backroom at the Bush Theatre
Gay theatre - and gay people generally - have fought a long struggle for complete acceptance. For too long, both have apologised for themselves, or worse, had their very right to existence questioned. Only a few years ago, the Evening Standard's one-time chief drama critic, Milton Shulman, had the tenacity (and his paper's support) to write a polemic bemoaning the sudden rash of gay plays that he saw as infecting the capital, when more than one dared to be staged at the same time in London. Now the current incumbent of the Standard's principal reviewing hot seat, Nicholas de Jongh, is himself one of the leading authorities on gay theatre.
All of which is by way of explaining - but definitely not apologising for - how far we've all come. Far enough, in fact, for a bright, cheerful and irresistibly funny new comedy, The Backroom, to be set in an Earl's Court male brothel.
That none of it is shocking is, in fact, itself slightly shocking. Adrian Pagan's play is so utterly matter-of-fact about the profession his characters are engaged in - probably the second oldest in the world, after female prostitution - and so hip to their alternately shallow yet complex lives that it resonates with both the laughter and pain of life.
As presided over by the permanently flustered and beleaguered Gary (played by Paul Thomas Hickey), the brothel contains six working boys, ranging from a completely out-of-it druggie, Paul (a superbly comatose Darren Tighe), to an outrageous Spanish queen who goes by the name Madonna (the hilarious James Lance). The arrival of a new boy - the public school educated Charlie (Ben Price) - who is in flight from a troubled relationship with his parents and the death of his sister, puts the nose seriously out of joint of Dallas (a solidly muscular Patrick Baladi) and steals the heart of Sandy (Justin Tallinger). Among these beautifully realised characters, only one - an Australian rentboy called Craig - is underdrawn, though Luke Healy invests him with a genuinely appealing, innocent charm.
The result is a sweet, surprisingly romantic comedy, in the honourable tradition of another gay play born at the Bush, Jonathan Harvey's teenage coming out play, Beautiful Thing. But The Backroom may be a little more explicit - when one of the many (unseen) customers arrives, Gary tells Charlie, 'Your twelve thirty's here. Make it quick - he only wants a Monica'.
It's not, perhaps, a play for your maiden aunt - but your bachelor uncle will definitely enjoy it. And so will you, if you go with an open mind and a receptive heart.