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Review: Coming Clean (Trafalgar Studios)

Kevin Elyot's debut play arrives at Trafalgar Studios, directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Elliot Hadley and Lee Knight in Coming Clean
© Scott Rylander

What a piece of history Coming Clean is. We now know that when the late Kevin Elyot wrote about a gay love triangle in 1982, the world was on the brink of an AIDS epidemic. This, his debut play, came too early to anticipate that. It arrived at a time when a gay man could (seemingly) have as much sex as he wanted, free of any risk. It's hard to imagine the play being written even a few years later.

Tony and Greg (Lee Knight and Stanton Plummer-Cambridge), live together in an open relationship; have done for years. Both have sex with other men. Times are more liberal now than when Elyot put pen to paper – so consider just how daring this picture may have looked in the '80s.

Tony and Greg's situation is made to appear so normal as to be really rather dull. In fact, the drama is sparked by nothing more explosive than Tony's hiring of a house-cleaner.

This young and good-looking interloper, Richard (Tom Lambert), arouses the attractions of both men – and after a turn events, Tony and Greg are made to wonder where to draw red lines in this polyamorous arrangement of theirs.

Two's company in a relationship, but three's a crowd. The play was called Cosy in its draft form, and director Adam Spreadbury-Maher does make things suitably claustrophobic. The Trafalgar Studios are never roomy, but in this production, the interior of the messy flat all but spills onto your lap.

Coming Clean shares many elements with Elyot's play My Night With Reg – one of the finest gay plays ever seen in the West End, and itself recently revived too. Both ask what is unique about male sexual desire, and about the qualities specific to a relationship between two or more men.

As a piece of writing, though, Coming Clean has aged less interestingly than Reg. The latter, staged in 1994, benefits from a little context. It asks all of its questions against the AIDS backdrop. But Coming Clean is curiously insulated against all the realities of its time.

There's no doubting that it is from 1982 (we're told a pint costs 90p and that a residence in Kentish Town is affordable), but is it truly rooted in 1982? You won't hear about the struggles that its characters may have faced in British society back then. The fourth character, the hedonistic William (Elliot Hadley), is a hoot; his friendship with Tony a highlight. But his vulnerabilities are underexplored in favour of broad gags and a dated, Village People-esque depiction.

Nonetheless, the chemistry between all four characters works well. The central two characters are nicely complicated creatures. Tony is a sort of pragmatist-cum-romantic; Greg an uptight yet noncommittal academic. Together they're a tragicomic odd-couple, cooped up together in apparent eternity.

That the play's focus is so wholeheartedly domestic can be a great strength. It lays bare the day-to-day performative roles that may be seen in a same-sex relationship – and the power-play that underpins them. Coming Clean helped blaze a trail for explorations of gay culture in big West End venues. For that reason, and for four quality performances, Elyot's debut is well worth a look.