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Canary (tour)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Not so much Angels in America as mere Mortals on Merseyside, Jonathan Harvey’s overdue new stage play, Canary, is a whizz bang tour of gay rights and struggles from the death of Marilyn Monroe to the present day, when a high-ranking police officer is compelled to come out when a reality television presenter goes in.

And the play’s not so much ambitious as just plain busy, with frustrating glimpses of Harvey’s rueful, funny writing at its best among a lot of engineered theatrics that look dated and over-familiar.

The action hinges, for instance, on Mary Whitehouse’s audience-baiting Festival of Light assembly in 1971 overrun by gay activists, who pop up all over the theatre like members (sic) of an old Theatre-in-Education troupe kissing and preening and displaying porn pix in their hymnals.

Whitehouse is played by the massively four-square and thunderously effete Philip Voss, which is funny up to a point, and a bit funnier still because Voss also plays the police officer, Tom, who is looking back at his younger, sexually conflicted self making his way in the force, and into marriage, haunted by an act of cowardly betrayal: he shipped his boy friend Billy to a homophobic witch hunt in order to save his own skin.

Cue grisly scene of aversion therapy, with Billy (Kevin Trainor) assailed by blown-up nude pin-ups while being forced to throw up; there’s a limp, but murderous, pay-off when his torturer picks him up, many years later, in a gay night club. Parallel to this, Tom’s son, Mickey (Ben Allen), seduces another sexual ditherer, Russell (Ryan Sampson), who goes into Les Misérables and sings one of the numbers on Mickey’s death bed. Mickey is dying slowly of AIDS, although his mum – a frantic Paula Wilcox who thinks she’s Bette Davis and goes flying with her son’s spirit to St Petersburg (yes, I know) – pretends that he had a motorbike accident near Tring. And older Russell (Sean Gallagher) is the invasive telly star…

Hettie Macdonald’s production is best when it makes Harvey’s poignant, spiky dialogue sit up, as in the scenes of father and son reconciliation; less good when characters are made to scramble over Liz Ascroft’s awkward moonscape setting, where we also see Gay Libbers siding with the miners’ strike and Mrs Thatcher (Paula Wilcox again) vetting the phrasing of her minister Norman Fowler’s handy hints for homos with lacerating disdain.

- Michael Coveney

NOTE: The following THREE STAR review dates from April 2010, and this production's premiere at the Liverpool Playhouse.

So many skeletons in the closet here, every gay in the village is out of it. Jonathan Harvey's play centres (le mot juste; every character seems completely self-obsessed) on two sets of star-crossed lovers; Russell the chat show host and Mickey, who date back to the 1980s, and Tom and Billy, who are growing up in Liverpool in the 1960s. We're also treated to modern day drama, including a prologue with, would you believe, Mary Whitehouse.

The set is splendidly dramatic: two halves of a globe are set back to back, like a huge brooding moon floating overhead. This also serves as a backdrop where people perch, and creates a raked stage (which makes remarks about 'going upstairs' seem rather daft). Back and forth we go, props and furniture whizzed on and off, from posh sitting room to stark cell, nightclub to hospital room.

Ben Allen (Mickey) could hardly be more prickly if coloured green but garners most of the sympathy, matched by the terrific Kevin Trainor, a winning Billy, young and old; he may appear a bit of a loser, but emerges as one of the stronger characters.

Philip McGinley is perhaps most convincing as the young, troubled Tom, Philip Voss coming into his own more in the scenes with Mickey than those in the family home. Ryan Sampson is a vibrant Russell in his younger days, so over the top you’d think he’ll never come up again; Sean Gallagher plays him sadder and a wee bit wiser in his heyday. And two ladies to single out: Tom’s daughter and his wife, with Jodie McNee a poignant Melanie, nervously wrecked. The splendid Paula Wilcox is excellent as Ellie, but it’s as if the playwright didn’t quite know what to do with her other than grant a triumphant finish.

Whilst this epic story of the evolution of Gay Rights and life is fascinating and horrifying by turn, in some parts there seemed to be a lot of messing about, though much of the audience relished the hefty symbolism, flights of fancy, Pythonesque interludes and magic realism.

‘History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’; Harvey has got that right in riveting fashion, particularly the comedy. The love which dare not speak its name? Shouts it out, loud and proud, and pretty damn graphically at times. But in the main, Canary hits all the right notes, and oh yes, it sings.

- Carole Baldock


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