Review: GHBoy (Charing Cross Theatre)
Paul Harvard's play comes to Charing Cross Theatre
Originally slated for a late Autumn run nixed by the second lockdown, Paul Harvard's gritty drama is now Charing Cross Theatre's improbable seasonal occupant, running alongside the rather more traditionally festive The Elf Who Was Scared Of Christmas which plays during the daytime. If you're booking via the venue's website double-check which production you're actually buying tickets for as, trust me, with the kids in tow, you wouldn't want to get these two mixed up!
Harvard's terse, explicit script certainly pulls no punches in its depiction of a hedonistic, spiritually impoverished gay underworld, obsessed with youth and in thrall to drug-fuelled, apparently joyless sexual encounters. This isn't particularly new dramatic territory, having already been covered by gay writers from Larry Kramer (As Is) to Jonathan Harvey (Closer To Heaven) and more recently by Matthew Lopez in The Inheritance. Harvard adds an extra layer of intrigue however, by introducing a shadowy, abusive figure (a saturninely menacing Geoff Aymer) who may be instrumental in a number of clubland deaths, if he isn't just a figment of our hero Robert's imagination.
Your tolerance level for self-obsessed, emotionally stunted man-boys with an inability to say no to the next hook-up despite allegedly being in a committed relationship, will most likely determine your reaction to Robert. Jimmy Essex plays him with considerable charm and an admirable lack of histrionics but the sheer selfishness of the character doesn't elicit much sympathy. However, there is a lovely warmth in the writing of the scenes between Robert and his devoted, accepting Mum (understudy Louis Sparks doing sterling, if unexpected, work at the performance I saw, stepping in ‘on book' for an injured Buffy Davis and ahead of new actress Nicola Sloane assuming the role). Marc Bosch is appropriately ardent and likeable as Sergi, the boyfriend Robert repeatedly cheats on, despite his only apparent misdemeanour being a tendency to excessive puppyishness, and Sylvester Akinrolabu makes a striking impression as each of the men Robert betrays him with.
Jon Pashley's smooth, almost clinical staging is appropriate for the chilly milieu, although the emotional catharsis that the ending strives for doesn't quite come off, and Bettina John's omnipresent art studio set (Robert is in art therapy to manage his grief over his father's death) is a slightly clumsy metaphor for the lead character's personal development. It's also worth noting that the set doesn't properly ‘read' from all areas of the traverse house...from my vantage point about seven rows back I couldn't see until I was leaving the auditorium that what had started out as blank canvasses had been filled with vivid paintings by the end of the play.
Despite these reservations, GHBoy – the title is a play on the abbreviated name for the potentially lethal recreational drug gamma hydroxybutyrate, frequently used during chemsex – is consistently watchable and has a whiff of rueful authenticity. Part thriller, part analysis drama, it doesn't entirely satisfy as either, but it's certainly never boring. Bizarrely, it also already feels like a product of an earlier time, with its lack of social distancing between actors in some of the intimate scenes, constant references to HIV but never to COVID-19, and the thought that the only mask you'd likely discover most of these characters wearing, would be gimp.