Note: The following review dates from March 2001 and the production's first run at the Hampstead Theatre.
Jonathan Harvey is always a playwright to watch, and in his latest work, he amply confirms the promise displayed so poignantly in Beautiful Thing in the mid-1990s.
A group of friends gather over the course of a long summer weekend, united by their sympathy for the bereaved Tony who has recently lost his long-term lover Frankie. Set in the garden of Tony's flat, all the action takes place within this one setting, inevitably creating an intimate, tense atmosphere that is perfectly suited to the coruscating revelations that will emerge over the course of this protracted weekend.
Although most of Harvey's characters here happen to be gay, there's no sense of him targeting a specific group to the exclusion of all else. The most prejudiced audience members may possibly shy away from the subject matter, but for everyone else, the sheer humanity and perception evident in his writing - plus a welcome wit - is what will strike most forceably. The issues of love, betrayal and loss become universal dilemmas that Harvey filters through an often tragi-comic perspective.
The play begins as Tony is tentatively romancing a potential new boyfriend. It's six months since his lover's funeral, and he's slowly trying to rebuild his life, aided by friends Monica, an aspiring actress, and "learner lesbian" and lodger Kevin, a dismal soul who seeks solace in drink since relationships elude him. Add to this trio Frankie's grieving mother Mary (the brilliant Linda Bassett in a virtuoso comic performance) who can't accept the need to move on, and the stage is set for a potentially explosive showdown
Mary is a wonderful creation. Wildly flamboyant, raucous and intrusive, she nevertheless commands one's sympathy because her vulnerability and self-delusion are painfully obvious. Like the wise men bearing gifts, Mary brings food on every visit, and these offerings become synonymous with the way she's trying to avoid the truth and cocoon herself in a fantasy world where her son has become perfect, all his lies and ill treatment dissolved by death. Bassett is a consummately capable actress, and she endows Mary with the sort of fascinating believability that has you hooked. The introduction of Rose, Mary's publican friend, is a less successful comic foil; she's a broad caricature that scores a few belly laughs but doesn't seem integral to the play's development.
Actress Kathy Burke takes the directorial helm of this production and a very good job she does, too. The play moves along pacily and is well served by a superb cast who extract the maximum impact from Michael Taylor's atmospheric garden set. Particular mention goes to Mark Bonnar who anchors the play emotionally as Tony. But really everyone involved deserves due praise for Out in the Open is an ensemble triumph all the way, a play that never shies away from the darker side of human nature but still manages to emerge in its final moments as persuasively life-affirming. A considerable achievement.