The Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th September, 2018
Jake Brunger’s play from 2016 is a fresh and funny four-hander about relationships and commitment, particularly among gay men. Rafe and Pete, seven years in, are itching to broaden their experience, only ever having been with each other. They recruit Michael, a friend from Facebook, for an evening with each of them. There are rules: Michael’s partner Andrew must not find out, being chief among them. Of course, anyone who has seen Gremlins knows that as soon as rules are mentioned they are going to be broken…. Michael tells Andrew from the off…
This comedy of manners gets off to a hilarious start as the nervous Rafe and the taciturn Pete meet Michael to make the proposition. Conor Nolan is superb as the adorably awkward, sweet but slightly twattish Rafe, with flawless timing and sensitivity. He is utterly credible from the start. Dominic Thompson’s Pete is initially a man of few words; it emerges that it is Pete who initiated the idea to spice up their sex lives, Rafe is going along with it for the sake of peace. Thompson imbues Pete with an animalistic intensity. Beyond the smart trousers and bottles of prosecco, Pete is a seething mass of passion. Thompson is an actor of charismatic presence in all he does, and he brings out Pete’s softer, more romantic side too.
Tom Silverton retains a measure of detachment and elegant aloofness as Michael, the recruit, who is apparently able to separate sex from emotion. It is only when the situation reaches breaking point that he expresses his true feelings – never mind can of worms, these are electric eels bursting out. The archness and bitchiness of Andrew (Tye Harris) masks vulnerability and low self-esteem, as he clings to Michael despite the ‘rules’ of their open relationship. Harris’s outbursts are powerful, revealing the true Andrew beneath the campness.
All four members of this quartet turn in a compelling, rounded performance. The comedy of manners develops into searing emotional scenes. Director Tracey Street manages the tonal changes splendidly. The minimalist setting gives focus to the actors in this intimate space – which is all this piece requires. In fact, as soon as props come in, we get wine sloshed around, glasses get broken… Street contrasts the overall naturalism of the performance with a stylised, contemporary-dance-like sequence to represent Pete and Michael having sex. It’s a beautiful moment – for us, to appreciate the movement skills of Thompson and Silverton – but ugly in what it means for the characters we have come to care about.
Brunger’s writing is dazzlingly good. The play suggests that open relationships may not necessarily be all that open, that monogamy might not be that monogamous, that there is indeed more than one way to have a relationship, but as long as those involved want different things, there will always be tension and the potential for breaking-up. And perhaps sex cannot be entirely detached from emotion after all.
Entertainment of the highest quality, this production is thoroughly engaging, funny and touching. I adored it.