Matthew Todd, associate editor of Attitude magazine and author of Blowing Whistles, wrote a fascinating piece in the Guardian recently about the evolution of the ‘gay play.’
The term is no longer a synonym for fringe theatre flesh-fests and tedious sojourns into the kitsch and the camp – though there are plenty examples of both still about – rather a thriving theatrical genre with its own growing canon (Beautiful Thing, Bent, My Night With Reg) and an increasing influence on the mainstream, what with amiable civil partnership comedy Southwark Fair playing at the National and one of the West End’s biggest musicals, Billy Elliot hymning the joys of boys wearing dresses.
While Blowing Whistles will have a level of resonance for anyone who’s ever had a long term relationship implode messily, it is undeniably a gay play and a good one at that – though its impact on occasion owes more to the performances of the three-man cast than the fizz and wit of the writing.
It’s the night before Pride, and Nigel and Jamie are celebrating their tenth anniversary with a small gathering of family and friends – followed by a threesome, arranged via the Gaydar website, with Mark, a young bloke who goes by the online moniker cumboy17.
Todd’s play, his first, is structurally very conventional, the opening scenes in particular feel like a sitcom pilot, an impression enhanced by a set that echoes Monica’s apartment from Friends complete with slanting skylight. But beneath the jokes about showtunes and lubricants, there’s something more interesting going on.
The play touches on complex issues, dealing with concerns about getting older and the obsession with youth in the gay community – Nigel is barely over thirty but lies about his age and regularly dabs on the Maybelline. It also deals, more overtly, with commitment and the workings of a long-term gay relationship. After another night of anonymous internet-facilitated sex, Jamie is beginning to wonder if Nigel’s feelings for him are as strong as they once were.
Though Blowing Whistles is entertaining, it’s far from a perfect piece of theatre. Although steps have been taken to round out Mark as a character, he remains little more than a catalyst for the breakdown of their relationship. It’s also rather difficult to believe that these two men have hit the ten year mark without Nigel’s promiscuity having already become a problem between them.
And personally I would have liked to see the play finish about ten minutes earlier than it did, leaving events in a bleaker and more ambiguous place, but perhaps that says more about more about my own black little heart than about the play’s dramatic shortcomings. Ultimately this is a funny and engaging work that plies you with easy laughs and then takes you somewhere unexpected.
Debuting at Croydon’s Warehouse Theatre last year, Blowing Whistles received deservedly strong reviews and it makes the transfer to the Sound Theatre in Leicester Square with the original cast intact. All three actors are at home in their roles and give strong performances, but Neil Henry is particularly good, bringing real warmth and depth to the character of Jamie, humanising dialogue that occasionally betrays Todd’s journalistic background.