Thomas Babes 1978 play is set in a steamy New York police station on the day after July 4th. Balloons and streamers and bunting still hang from the ceiling, but this is just a brittle nod to better times past in this bleak and disturbing parable.
An old lady has been shot dead, half her head blown off. Sean and Jimmy are in the frame for it and the cops have no qualms about administering a swift blow to the gut to help extract a confession. Were in Sidney Lumet territory here, think Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, sweat and the city, mens souls spilling over.
Babes play is rather bluntly structured. Two cops and two criminals, with clear parallels between them, the thin blue line blurred. Kelly, the older and wearier of the two police officers, has a screwed up daughter who keeps phoning up, distraught, threatening to shoot herself. But he seems only minimally perturbed by this disturbance, concentrating instead on extracting a confession from the two crooks. Of course, all four men end up revealing something of themselves as the night progresses, and the crime takes a backseat as the play focuses instead on the mens sexuality and relationships.
Dominic Hills production takes a good while to find its feet. At first the whole situation feels rather forced, with Matthew Marshs Kelly and Colin Morgans pretty young junkie in particular, both having a touch of caricature to them – their Nu Yoik shtick feels a bit much, a bit full on.
It’s only after the interval that the play really settles into itself, with a series of tense and moving scenes. The best of these occurs between Corey Johnsons Jack, the younger police officer, and the more grounded of the two, despite his own drug use, and Sean Chapman, as traumatised Vietnam medic Sean. His account of cradling a dying soldier, as he tries to explain his sexuality to Jack, is incredibly powerful. “There’s a woman inside me, officer,” he tells him, “and she aches for the men she has known.”
This powerful encounter provides a subtle counterpoint to the more physical interactions between Jimmy and Kelly, which veer from the tender to the violent. Morgan (who, last year, played Vernon in the Young Vics Vernon God Little) ripples and twitches his thin body, acting for all hes worth, but its too much, too big a performance, and it ends up detracting from the drama.
As the play becomes more emotionally charged, it loses focus, becomes confused. This is compounded by the decision to stage it in a traverse fashion, with the Young Vic reconfigured so that the audience are divided on either side of the action. The manner of staging undermines the potential intensity of the piece.
This is more than just a police procedural, much more. Babes New York is a lost city, the men in it, in particular, trying to find something to hold on to. The Vietnam War has left a huge mark on their world, upending old ideas of what made a man, what made a good man, leaving a gap with nothing to fill it; Babe is clearly fascinated by this absence. (Woman are another absence, just voices over the end of the phone or anonymous dead old ladies who quickly get forgotten).
Babes cops casually shoot up and his criminals have served their country at war and speak lovingly of their young children; the lines are blurred between good and bad, masculine and feminine, the old rules no longer apply. Though Hills production manages to gets much of this across, if in a somewhat heavy-handed manner, it was still difficult to care about which man would eventually take the rap for the shooting. The event that should hook everything together, the impending suicide of Kellys daughter, is also curiously uninvolving. It felt like a device, a tired one at that, and, as such, there was little in the way of emotional impact when she eventually pulled the trigger.