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Review: Twilight Song (Park Theatre)

The Park Theatre plays host to the world premiere of Kevin Elyot's final play

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Kevin Elyot's works have received a small resurgence since his death in 2014. Coming Clean is at the King's Head this month and My Night with Reg enjoyed a sell-out run at the Donmar in 2014, which then transferred to the Apollo. But Elyot's final play, Twilight Song, written just before his death, has only just received its premiere.

As the title suggests, it is Elyot's swansong, a rumination hailing from the twilight hours of life, on missed opportunities and lost love. There is a mantra running through it, voiced by nearly all the characters at different points, that life is short and needs to be grabbed by the balls; Carpe testis? Barry (Paul Higgins), a middle-aged gay man who lives with his mother, takes the instruction somewhat literally and decides to nervously proposition a visiting estate agent, Skinner (Adam Garcia) who has a small sideline in prostitution.

The opening scene between Barry and Skinner is full of double entendres and cock gags as they feel each other out, so to speak. Some of the jokes are rather heavy-handed, such as: "It's hard isn't it?" from Barry, then, after a stagey pause, and a raised eyebrow from Skinner, he elucidates: "thwarted ambition", and as Skinner inspects the fireplace, almost nose-to-nose with one audience member, Barry checks out his bum.

The actors took their time over this first scene, clearly relishing the wordplay and pausing for too long for the laughter, which actually damaged the pacing, and made it hard to buy in to. But things pick up and fall into a more natural ebb and flow when we're transported back in time to the '60s, when Barry's mother Isabella (Call the Midwife's Bryony Hannah) has just married Barry's father Basil (also played by Higgins, this time as a meek but doting husband) and moved into a new house where kindly closet gay Uncle Charles (Hugh Ross) and his on/off secret partner Harry (a suave Philip Bretherton) join them for dinner. The two older gents then offer a masterclass in understated drama which, as Elyot does so beautifully, from writing for TV's Agatha Christie, imperceptibly lays the groundwork for the big reveal later on.

There's some heavy-handed metaphor about the house's terrace, which is half-built and never completed. It remains unseen just beyond James Cotterill's simple yet evocative set of a sofa, a 1920s record player and a curved bay of french windows. The scene changes feel clumsy, though, with music to denote the time period, and various characters skulking about with the lights down, possibly to show some inner turmoil, or maybe because they found themselves on the wrong side of the stage and had no choice but to walk dramatically across it. But there are standout points too, like the steamy Lady Chatterley moment between frustrated wife Isabella and the hired help (a cocksure Garcia, again).

You sense that Elyot was trying to cram a lot of life lessons into one play but the overriding message is that no-one is really able to be their true selves, hemmed in by the decisions they've made. It certainly hit the buttons for the crowd at the Park, with references to recession proof property keeping modern relevance and some titillation thrown in. It's funny but the deeper emotions running through never quite hit the mark.

Isabella, who is the one character whose whole life we've watched, now grown old, bemoans her regrets in a scene set in semi-darkness, gazing over that unfinished terrace. I'm sure we're meant to reflect too, but there's no emotional depth here. Perhaps turning the lights down and making her face her back to us was a challenge too far. Either way, the show is funny and keeps you guessing. Fans of Elyot should be pleased he left this one last gift to them.

Twilight Song runs at the Park Theatre until 12 August.

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