Mart Crowley s The Boys in the Band must have been explosive when it first appeared in 1968, the first commercial play to tackle homophobia, not to mention homosexuality, head on. But a lot has changed in three decades. Now the play s not so much shocker as curio.
Michael (Robin Hart) is throwing a birthday party for Harold (Luke Williams) to which all of their gay friends are invited. Enter an assortment of queens obsessed with beauty, “cheap sentiment” and promiscuity. The high spirits are soon dampened by the unexpected arrival of Alan (Paul Venables), Michael s straight, ex-college roommate. As the evening wears on, the mood blackens as the drunken host tries to bait Alan into shedding his homophobic veneer and embarrass everyone else in the process. In the end, the only one with egg on his face is Michael himself who is immobilised by drink and his own self-loathing.
Although some of the characters elicit flashes of sympathy - most notably the tormented couple Hank (Norman Cooley) and Larry (Patrick Toomey) who fumble for a compromise in their love for one another - this is, on the whole, a very unlikeable crowd.
Their clichéd personalities seem to say that to be gay is, as a matter of course, to be high-strung and overbearingly camp - like it or lump it. While tittering self-consciously at the characters many jokes made at their own expense, I wondered whether my unease was just a reflection of my own prejudice. My companion reassured me that I wasn t the only one uncomfortable with the stereotypes. He d delayed coming out for many years because of this somewhat unpalatable image of what it was to be gay.
Thank heavens that in enlightened society today, gays are accepted, not as stereotypes, but as people who can integrate, rather than isolate themselves for reasons of self-preservation. But perhaps that s where The Boys in the Band is so valuable - to show us just how far we ve come. As well as to remind us how simple yesterday s worries were compared to modern spectres such as Aids.
Sadly, though the play is ideal for a revival in a fringe venue like the Kings Head, it lacks the mass appeal to make it on the West End. The stalls were sparsely populated on the night we went. As my friend said, “There are no bad seats, just empty ones”. If you re keen to fill one, waste no time about it.